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Local scientists on brain mapping dream team reflect on challenges, opportunity

In September 2011, a group of “nano” people focused on engineering materials at the smallest scales and “neuro” folks who study the black box of the brain gathered at Chicheley Hall outside London for a meeting. It was something of a scientific mixer -- an attempt to bridge the gap between two fields that sat on the scientific equivalent of different continents.

One of the attendees who had dabbled in both fields, Harvard Medical School genome pioneer George Church, saw it as a fun meet-and-greet, although he wasn’t convinced it would lead to anything bigger.

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But early on, California Institute of Technology physics professor Michael Roukes laid out a possible convergent frontier for the two fields: Nanoscientists were developing ever-more-capable technologies, which could enable a generation of new sensors that could record activity from thousands or millions of brain cells. He threw out the idea that there might be a parallel to the human genome project: the technology had evolved in nanoscience to the point where it could enable a massive assault on complex biology, similar to what had happened as DNA sequencing had scaled up.

“The question is are we ready to actually begin?’ Roukes recalled. “Is the time right to tackle the next complex quest in biology?”

The answer in the room was yes. It was an unusual setting for a major US science initiative to start: on foreign soil, at a meeting that brought together scientists who were outliers in each others’ worlds. But last Tuesday morning, before an audience of top scientists, President Obama laid out support for an initiative called BRAIN (short for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) and announced $100 million in funding for the first year.

“There is this enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked, and the BRAIN Initiative will change that by giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember,” Obama said. “And that knowledge could be -- will be -- transformative.”

The initiative has garnered plenty of attention, but it has also raised plenty of questions, since it is still fairly unclear what its initial primary scientific goals will be. A handful of published papers have described new technologies that could be used to monitor activity in the brain. But which technologies will be chosen, and at what level of detail the mapping should take place remains unclear.

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At a press conference Tuesday, Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, said that would be hammered out by a “dream team” of 15 scientists who will hold their first meeting at the end of the month.

Eve Marder, a neuroscientist from Brandeis University and a member of the dream team, said that when she first got involved in the effort, during a meeting in early 2012 in Santa Monica, Calif., she was skeptical. The scientists in the room were talking about a big grand challenge that could be embraced by the White House.

“I think some of the people there were hoping [for this], and I thought they were living on the moon,” Marder said. To her delight, her doubts turned out to be unfounded, and Marder said she hopes that the initiative will be seen as a strong signal to a generation of young scientists who may have become disillusioned by the tight funding environment.

Church, who is not a member of the dream team, said one of his concerns is that the effort may become “siloed.” There’s a tendency, he said, for neurobiologists to surround themselves with other neurobiologists, whereas the idea’s strength draws largely from its interdisciplinary origins.

Joshua Sanes, director of the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University, and another member of the BRAIN dream team, said the initiative represents a heartening shift at at a time when people who do fundamental, curiosity-driven science feel under pressure as the burgeoning field of “translational” research has grown and drawn funding.

“I think the basic research community is wondering whether people are paying enough attention to the fact that maybe what we know now isn’t going to cure all disease, even with infinite translation,” Sanes said. “And maybe we’re not kind of keeping a pipeline going that will provide the basic information or the serendipitous discoveries for the diseases we don’t know how to cure.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.

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