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William Newsome to co-chair $100 million brain-research initiative

Professor of Neurobiology William Newsome has been selected as a co-chair of the planning committee for the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) project, an initiative created by President Barack Obama to shape the future of neuroscience in America.

Over $100 million has already been pledged to the initiative through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), National Science Foundation and several other companies, foundations and research institutions in the private sector.

“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” Obama said when he announced the initiative at the White House on April 2.

Newsome and his co-chair, Cori Bargman of Rockfeller University, will work with 13 other committee members in planning the project. Two of these members — Associate Professor of Biology and Applied Physics Mark Schnitzer and Professor of Bioengineering and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Karl Deisseroth Ph.D. ’98 M.D. ’00 M.F. ’03 — are also from Stanford.

The committee has been charged with establishing a timeline, estimating a budget and setting goals for the BRAIN initiative, which has the ultimate objective of mapping the brain’s 100 billion neurons and diagramming the connections that run between these neurons.

“It will be a lot of work,” Newsome said about the project. “I don’t need it, but it’s a really important moment in brain science, how we study it and treat it and how we deal with disease.”

Newsome said that he became involved in the project a month ago, when NIH Director Francis Collins “called him out of the blue.” Collins told Newsome that the Obama administration was going to devote itself to a brain-mapping initiative that needed a planning committee to meet over the summer.

After considering the offer for a day, Newsome said that he “decided to jump in,” describing the project as bold and exciting but also “grounded in scientific reality.” According to Newsome, America is at a critical threshold in brain science research, partially due to the recent development of technology that Newsome sees as game changing.

“Neuroscience has made a lot of steady progress over the last 50 years, but we stand at a major turning point because there are new technologies that have been invented to provide us with data that never seemed possible ten years ago,” Newsome said.

According to Newsome, some of these technologies will allow scientists to create a circuit diagram of the brain, which he compared to “opening up a road atlas and seeing how the different cities, or parts of the brain, are connected to each other.”

Another recently developed process, called CLARITY, was pioneered at Stanford. The CLARITY process turns the brain’s lipids into transparent hydrogel, letting researchers examine the brain’s structure and more clearly map the connections between neurons.

“Knowing where the roads are is not enough — we want to know what is on the road, not just connectivity, but activity,” Newsome said. “We used to record the activity of one neuron at a time. Now we can do thousands.”

Newsome also mentioned the importance of optogenetic technology, which was invented in Deisseroth’s lab at Stanford in 2005. This technology allows researchers to make certain circuits of neurons react together by exciting them with stimuli such as light, which can lead to a better understanding of how to manipulate brain activity.

According to Newsome, these new technologies put neuroscience “on the verge of massively more sophisticated datasets on how the brain works.”

Newsome said that the BRAIN committee hopes to “step on the gas pedal” and believes that focusing on the interaction between new technology and neuroscience will result in a major shift in the way that researchers understand the functioning of the brain.

One of the team’s ultimate goals is to accelerate the base of discovery surrounding the brain in a way that could contribute to the eventual discovery of cures for neurological disorders like autism, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

Collins described previous studies of the brain as comparable to “listening to the string section of an orchestra and trying to figure out what the whole orchestra sounds like” and expressed hope that the BRAIN committee will be able to provide a more complete picture.