The proposed National Brain Observatory would expand access to powerful tools for studying brain activity

The proposed National Brain Observatory would expand access to powerful tools for studying brain activity.

NIH

Neuroscientist team calls for a National Brain Observatory

Roughly 3 years ago, six well-known neuroscientists drafted an ambitious proposal for a large U.S. neuroscience project to map activity in the living brain. In spite of initial skepticism, the project became reality, in the form of President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Now, the same team, who jokingly refer to themselves as the “Kavli six” because of their affiliation with the California-based Kavli Foundation, has crafted another bold proposal aimed at accelerating BRAIN’s success: the creation of a National Brain Observatory, a network of neurotechnology centers tied to the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Labs.

The first round of federal BRAIN funding—roughly $100 million—went largely to grants for individual labs or multilab collaborations. Neuroscientist Rafael Yuste, one of the Kavli six, says such “small potatoes” was not what he and the others originally envisioned. From the beginning, he notes, they were convinced that—in addition to individual grants—the technological challenges facing neuroscience today require coordinated “big science” investments in technology, such as the national telescopes and particle accelerators that revolutionized astronomy and physics. The new proposal, which Yuste believes would cost at least $50 million per year, in addition to existing BRAIN funds, to do well, is an attempt to remedy what the group sees as an important omission by BRAIN leadership. “Something has been left out from the original vision, and that’s why we’re making all this noise,” he says.

The proposal for the National Brain Observatory, published by the Kavli six in Neuron today, is short on funding details.

The centers would not necessarily involve newly built facilities, though Yuste says that’s not out of the question. They could also arise from within existing DOE labs around the country, such as Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in Lemont, Illinois, or at other places such as university labs and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, he says. The ultimate composition of any national observatory is likely to be influenced by meetings held Friday at ANL prior to the annual Society for Neuroscience conference, Yuste says.

The goal of the observatory proposal is to expand access to four kinds of expensive technologies necessary for mapping the brain’s structure and activity: large scale electron microscopes in the realm of 90 to 200 beams, which are far too expensive for individual laboratories to acquire or maintain; fabrication facilities for new nanosized electrode systems that can record the activity of large numbers of neurons; new optical and magnetic resonance brain activity imaging technologies; and advanced storage and computational data mining. A national observatory system could also foster the public development and use of expensive technologies, such as lasers, which are used for a variety of neuroscience methods but are currently supplied by private companies, Yuste says.

Although the proposal is ambitious, the Kavli group is not to be underestimated, says David Kleinfeld, a neurophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, who was involved in some of the early brainstorming for the observatories and will be attending Friday’s meeting. When he read their original brain activity mapping paper that launched the BRAIN initiative, “I chuckled halfway through, then poured myself a glass of wine and went back to writing a paper,” he says. But, “I was wrong—the program went viral!” he says. Whether the same will be true of the National Brain Observatory is up to the neuroscience community, and, of course, the president and Congress.