BRAIN Initiative: Thoughts on Interim Report to the NIH

neurons reconstructed in eyewire, connectome

We stand on the verge of a great journey into the unknown—the interior terrain of thinking, feeling, perceiving, learning, deciding, and acting to achieve our goals—that lives within the human brain. These capacities are the essence of our minds and the aspects of being human that matter most to us. Remarkably, these powerful yet exquisitely nuanced capacities emerge from electrical and chemical interactions among roughly 100 billion nerve cells and glial cells that compose our brains. All human brains share basic anatomical circuits and synaptic interactions, but the precise pattern of connections and interactions are highly variable from person to person—and therein lies the source of the remarkable variation we see in human behavior, from the breathtaking dance of a ballerina, to the elegant craftsmanship of a master carpenter, to the shrewd judgment of an expert trader. Our brains make us who we are, enabling us to perceive beauty, teach our children, remember loved ones, react against injustice, learn from history, and imagine a different future.

Preamble, The Goals of the BRAIN Initiative

Today is my one year anniversary at MIT. I’ve grown as a person and learned more than I ever imagined. To celebrate, I read a 50+ page NIH report, which was surprisingly awe inspiring. Here are my thoughts.

On Sept 16, 2013, an advisory committee of prominent neuroscientists presented a report to the NIH Director outlining the goals and objectives of the BRAIN Initiative for FY 2014.

Before we proceed, Iet’s back up. My greatest passion in life is understanding consciousness; understanding how the brain yields a thinking, feeling human being. That’s why I’m at Seung Lab working on EyeWire, attempting to catalyze exponential progress advancing neuroscience from the unknown into the understood. How exciting, how chill-inducing to read that the greatest minds on minds of our generation are teaming up and calling for unprecedented action in this direction, progress backed with investment and goals for disruptive, interdisciplinary collaboration that “reconceives what it means to be an experimental neuroscientist.” (13)

The report outlines several themes and high-priority research areas for 2014:

  1. Generate a Census of Cell Types
  2. Create Structural Maps of the Brain
  3. Develop New Large-Scale Network Recording Capabilities
  4. Develop A Suite of Tools for Circuit Manipulation
  5. Link Neuronal Activity to Behavior
  6. Integrate Theory, Modeling, Statistics, and Computation with Experimentation
  7. Delineate Mechanisms Underlying Human Imaging Technologies
  8. Create Mechanisms to Enable Collection of Human Data
  9. Disseminate Knowledge and Training

I am particularly excited about, well, all of these but for the interest of time I’ll hone it down. First, let’s reflect on the fact that we don’t even know how many types of cells there are in our own heads..and how quickly that’s changing. A catalog of cell types would provide a framework for existing research and a foundation for future experiments. Like everything in this report, it’s extremely exciting.

Second. Create a structural map of the brain. The report calls for a movement “towards [mapping] a full connectome.” Oh yes. There are many layers of functional circuits in the brain, all of which are important to our broader understanding. Special emphasis is given to integrating scales in both time and space and creating platforms that “enable understanding of the relation between neural structure and function.” The report calls for “faster, less expensive, and scalable approaches” that will reveal how how neural dynamics relate to complex behavior. Crowd-sourcing is specifically mentioned in this section, which needless to say amps me up.

neuron branches, eyewire,

I’ll skip now to numbers 5 and 6, which read as a call for revolutionary cross-boundary collaboration among researchers to create integrative tools for creating enriched, multidimensional datasets that, for example, might integrate molecular, functional and connectomic information. The report indicates a preferences for involvement from fields outside neuroscience such as computer science, statistics, engineering, physics and theory (and even calls for new theoretical tools and techniques — a “brain based theory of higher functions is notably lacking.” hello, opportunity).

This is not the time to play is safe.

I love this. Neuroscience is due a bit of disruption; we need to bring in minds from different fields — fields that the authors of this report may not have even considered, such as design. I think crucial components will be identifying and communicating neuroscience’s biggest accomplishments, current state of knowledge and present/future hurdles to communities of talented individuals and organizations, many of which may be outside academia, who will develop and test innovative solutions to them. We may use tools like Kaggle or host Hackathons, challenging a burgeoning global developer community to create software that will help solve neuroscience’s biggest difficulties. I’ve come to realize that while techniques do cost a considerable amount of time, it seems that software and big data analysis are what’s really needed to increase technolgical and analytical throughput by 100-1000x, as the report calls for. One infamous case of analytic delay is that of Earl Miller’s Lab at MIT. The team spent 2 weeks collecting functional activity data and 2 years analyzing it. Damn. We need tools, better AI and brave collaborations on all neruoscientific fronts. This is one area I’m particularly interested in catalyzing.

Another interesting component of this research is an open call to create a neuroscience data reservoir where researchers can store and one day maybe even crowd-source analysis of their research findings, specifically image data. Seung Lab (my lab) has an interest in this, so stay tuned.

synapse in eyewire

A final point of interest is #9, the dissemination of knowledge and training. In the context of citizen science, which will likely play an increasingly important role in neuroscientific progress, we need to share best practices and methods through which labs can involve the general public in the scientific method. We are actively working on such toolkits and events. Ping me if you are interested in collaborating on this or any other area.

Finally, going back to the big picture (my favorite), I’d like to point out that the report specifically calls for research “composed with a specific eye toward eventual impact for humans” and that “encourages changes in the culture of neuroscience.”

The challenge is to map the circuits of the brain, measure the fluctuating patterns of electrical and chemical activity flowing within those circuits, and understand how their interplay creates our unique cognitive and behavioral capabilities.

Our ultimate goal is to understand our own brains.. to understand the circuits and patterns of neural activity that give rise to mental experience and behavior.

It’s a wonderful time to be alive. I’m honored to have the opportunity to play a leading role in the future of neuroscience through EyeWire and specifically Seung Lab at MIT.

for science eyewire black on yellow, for science, eyewire, brain, design


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