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Understanding the brain: the U.S. National Science Foundation and the BRAIN Initiative

Posted on September 4, 2013

On April 2, 2013, the White House announced an initiative called Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), which includes the participation of the National Science Foundation (NSF). You may wonder what this means.

Part of what it means is an opportunity to continue a national conversation about an important topic: the brain. To help with the dialogue, here are short answers to some basic questions.

What is the BRAIN Initiative?

The BRAIN Initiative is an effort by federal agencies and private partners to support and coordinate research to understand how the human brain works.

Why do we need to understand the brain?

Understanding the brain means knowing the fundamental principles underlying brain structure and function. The research required to do so will accelerate scientific discovery and innovation, promote advances in technology and bolster U.S. economic competitiveness.

New neuroscience discoveries will enable us to foster brain health; engineer solutions that enhance, replace or compensate for lost function; improve the effectiveness of formal and informal educational approaches; promote learning across the lifespan and build brain-inspired smarter technologies for improved quality of life.

What is NSF’s role in brain research?

NSF has a long history of support for brain science that has produced breakthroughs inbrain imagingneurotechnologiesmodeling and genomics, and is uniquely positioned to lead an innovative, multi-disciplinary effort by scientists and engineers to advance a comprehensive understanding of brain structure and function.

NSF invests in high-risk, high-reward exploratory and transformational scientific and engineering research with emphasis on integration across scales and disciplines.

Why now?

While our knowledge of brain anatomy and how brain cells use chemical and electrical signals to communicate with one another has grown considerably, we are only beginning to understand how those signals interact to give rise to thoughts, processes and behaviors.

Now is the time for a comprehensive approach that combines new discoveries from a variety of fields, including brain anatomy, imaging and function as well as cyberinfrastructure. Understanding the brain has been identified as one of five longstanding and fundamental questions, or “grand challenges,” for future research.

What do we need to do this?

  • Continued cooperation among different fields of research: biology, engineering, chemistry, physics, math, computer science, social science and medicine. To integrate findings across scales of space and time, from molecular, physical, physiological and genetic to cognitive and behavioral.
  • Discoveries born out of curiosity-driven science that will ultimately help maintain a healthy brain.
  • Tools that can detect, measure and record all the connections and activity in a single brain of 100 billion neurons (today’s technology is limited to a few thousand neurons).
  • Improved data management and storage for the large amounts of information that will be produced.
  • Time. This is a long-term investment.

Source: NSF

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