Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Brain Observatory Proposal


Science 23 October 2015:  Vol. 350  no. 6259  pp. 365-366 

Second bid for brain observatory

Emily Underwood


At a recent Society for Neuroscience meeting at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in Lemont, Illinois, scientists hosted nearly 100 researchers and government officials to discuss a bold proposal: the creation of a National Brain Observatory, a network of neurotechnology centers tied to the Department of Energy's (DOE's) National Laboratories.

The call to equip neuroscientists with the type of big, expensive facilities historically built for physicists and astronomers dates from 3 years ago, when Rafael Yuste of Columbia University and five other neuro scientists drafted the proposal for what would ultimately become President Obama's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. They argued that mapping the intricacies of the brain and managing the resulting data requires “big science” investments similar to national telescopes and particle accelerators. But the first round of federal BRAIN funding—roughly $100 million—went almost exclusively for technology development by individual labs, a “tepid” response, Yuste says. Last week, he and the same five colleagues made their case again in the journal Neuron and at the ANL workshop. “Something has been left out from the original vision, and that is why we are making all this noise,” Yuste says.

At the meeting, attendees discussed four broad goals:

1. expanding access to large-scale electron microscopes;

2. providing fabrication facilities for new, nanosized electrode systems that can monitor thousands of neurons at once;

3. developing new optical and magnetic resonance technologies for mapping brain activity;

4. and finding new ways to analyze and store the staggering amount of data that detailed brain studies can produce.

Participants differed, however, about just how much federal support they will need. Fabricating nanoelectrodes, for example, will require the same types of costly foundries that build semiconductor chips, says Michael Roukes, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. But for data storage and analysis, distributed networks of programmers who create and share code might ultimately be more effective than government-run facilities, says neuroscientist Jeremy Freeman of Janelia Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia.

Either way, building support for the initiative among neuroscientists and at funding agencies will require “an extraordinary scientific mission, something where you sit up and say we have to do this,” says Clay Reid, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington. One such mission—creating a map of roughly half of the human brain's 100,000 km of axons, the threadlike extensions that project from neurons—generated widespread enthusiasm at the meeting. Created by imaging micron-thick slices of a post mortem human brain, the map would not show synapses for the entire brain, but would reveal every neuron, axon, and potentially hard-to-distinguish glial cell, Kasthuri says. It would “push the envelope” of current optical imaging and data analysis, and create a core of trained staff that could support later projects, said David Kleinfeld, a neuroscientist and physicist at the University of California, San Diego. It would also be the first complete map of the human brain's neural pathways, which would be useful for physicians and surgeons and help “ground truth” techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, which lack anatomical detail, says Jeffrey Lichtman, a neuroscientist at Harvard University.

Still murky is how a National Brain Observatory would be organized and how much it would cost. It could harness existing electron microscopes and x-ray sources at DOE and university facilities, but Yuste says that even so, the initiative would require at least $50 million per year, on top of existing BRAIN funding. And any effort will have to serve DOE's mission of advancing basic physical and computational science, notes Brad Aimone, a computational neuroscientist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Long-time neuroscience supporter Representative Chaka Fattah (D–PA), who helped secure $3 million in National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for developing the National Brain Observatory project this year, attended the workshop and told attendees that the idea has bipartisan support. And DOE seems on board. ANL Director Peter Littlewood has asked NSF for roughly $1 million annually for 5 years to develop the concept through collaborations between the lab and the University of Chicago in Illinois. Now, it's up to the neuroscience community, Congress, and the White House to determine whether the National Brain Observatory becomes more than a lofty vision.



Return to — Scientific Understanding of Consciousness

Return to — Covington Theory of Consciousness