Nerve cells

Nerve cells in the brain of a songbird that are associated with learning and producing birdsongs, from the lab of Todd Roberts, a U.S. BRAIN Initiative–funded scientist.

Vamsi Daliparthi and Todd Roberts, Department of Neuroscience, UT Southwestern Medical Center

Big dreams emerge for big brain science projects

While the United Nations General Assembly prepared for its sometimes divisive annual general debate on Monday, a less official United Nations of Brain Projects met nearby in a display of international amity and unbounded enthusiasm for the idea that transnational cooperation can, must, and will, at last, explain the brain.

The tribe of some 400 neuroscientists, computational biologists, physicists, physicians, ethicists, government science counselors, and private funders convened at The Rockefeller University on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in New York City. The Coordinating Global Brain Projects gathering was mandated by the U.S. Congress in a 2015 law funding the U.S. Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The meeting aimed to synchronize the explosion of big, ambitious neuroscience efforts being launched from Europe to China. Nearly 50 speakers from more than a dozen countries explained how their nations are plumbing brain science; all seemed eager to be part of the as-yet unmapped coordination that they hope will lead to a mellifluous symphony rather than a cacophony of competing chords.

“We are really seeing international cooperation at a level that we have not seen before,” said Rockefeller’s Cori Bargmann, a neurobiologist who with Rafael Yuste of Columbia University convened the meeting with the backing of the universities, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Kavli Foundation, a private funder of neuroscience and nanoscience. Bargmann and Yuste have been integral to planning the BRAIN Initiative launched by President Barack Obama in the spring of 2013, which, along with the European Human Brain Project, started the new push for large-scale neuroscience initiatives. “This could be historic,” Yuste said. “I could imagine out of this meeting that groups of people could get together and start international collaborations the way the astronomers and the physicists have been doing for decades.”

Many of the plans and aspirations presented at the meeting were familiar, not least from an April prequel that gathered some 60 neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University and laid the groundwork for the current gathering. They included China’s ambitious 15-year plan aimed at understanding the neural basis of cognitive functions while developing the tools to diagnose and treat brain diseases early; it is likely to be funded with $1 billion over the first 10 years. There was also excitement about a digital, cloud-based storehouse of troves of neuroscience data that would be accessible to all. This international repository was later the subject of discussion at a meeting of scientific diplomats from several countries, convened at the United Nations itself, and attended by U.S. Department of State representatives as well as by France Córdova, the director of NSF. 

At the Rockefeller meeting, an important impetus behind the big ambitions—the quest to decipher the gamut of human brain diseases that are still incredibly poorly understood—was evident in the room. “It’s purely getting at the [brain] circuits that’s going to tell us about schizophrenia, autism, multiple psychiatric disorders,” Walter Koroshetz, the director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, told the assembled scientists. Yet our current neuroscience tools are so rudimentary, he noted, that watching the brain function in real time is like “trying to understand what Gone with the Wind is [about] by watching it one pixel at a time over and over again.” 

The quest to understand the brain is complicated, too, by the profound ethical questions that will inevitably arise as the science moves forward, from worries about the potential hacking of brain implants to the notion that technological advances will ultimately make mind control possible. These are questions that can’t be tackled too soon, one speaker urged. “We should not take an attitude of ‘Wake me up when it gets interesting,’” said Martha Farah, the director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at the University of Pennsylvania. “Where we start, what we do at the beginning, affects the end.”

The participants, from at least a score of mostly wealthy countries, were also reminded that the ambitious agenda they are forging needs to embrace developing countries. “How can these already well-established brain projects help colleagues in developing countries like my own?” asks Mohammad Mustafa Herzallah, a researcher based at Rutgers University, Newark, in New Jersey representing the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative.

The meeting’s attendees were treated at the outset to a round of inspiration from David Shoemaker, the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Cambridge, who walked them through the observatory’s history as an object lesson in how to succeed with large-scale science. But it is not clear that big neuroscience can duplicate LIGO’s success. The massive complexity of the problems it is tackling, from mapping the functioning brain to making petabytes of data meaningful and accessible to training a new generation of neuroscientists who are equipped to work across disciplines to make sense of it all, do not lend themselves to easily assembled and discretely defined teams and tasks—at least, not quickly. That became clear in the meeting’s closing moments, when both Yuste and Bargmann offered goals and suggestions—like the idea that national agencies fund worthy applicants from any country; and the convening of a committee that tackles the links between international projects—but no specific plan for moving forward. 

That did nothing to diminish the optimism and energy of the gathering. “What has happened here is magnificent,” declared Rodolfo Llinás, an 81-year-old Colombian-American neuroscientist who is a professor emeritus at New York University in New York City. “Never before in neuroscience have I seen so much unity in such a glorious purpose.”

At which point the room burst into applause.