There is a buzz in the air about brain research, says Stanford Professor of Neurobiology William T. Newsome, PhD, who was recently appointed to direct Stanford's new Neuroscience Institute, a campus-wide brain research initiative that will galvanize interdisciplinary collaborations between neurosciences and a broad array of disciplines. A month earlier, Newsome was also appointed to co-lead the Obama Administration's BRAIN Initiative, which has the ambitious goal of mapping the brain's roughly 100 billion neurons and the trillions of connections between them and then determining how signals pass between these neural circuits and how that process is controlled.
"The brain is the most complex entity that we know of in the universe," says Newsome. "And it's not going to give up its secrets easily. We now have tools to study the brain that are so much better than the ones we had in the past, and I think that has fueled the buzz in the air about brain science."
One of Newsome's first efforts for both projects will to be meet with faculty from various departments to begin the work of building collaboration. In May, he worked with Associate Professor Nich Melosh of Materials Science to pull together a group of 42 faculty members – engineers and neuroscientists – who spent four and half hours learning about each other's work. Neuroscientists discussed their research and the tools they need to conduct it successfully. And engineers shared their latest projects, and took away insights into the types of new tools needed to propel the science of the brain forward. Newsome would like to host similar meetings, bringing talented thinkers from a broad range of disciplines such as physics, mathematics, statistics and molecular and cell biology together with neuroscientists to galvanize collaboration and pursue research together to advance discovery.
"Neuroscience has the potential to impact broad swathes of the university, to change the way people think," he says.
The Neuroscience Institute has identified six major research themes that will form the backbone of the effort:
- The "Language" of the Brain: Cracking the Neural Code
- Enhancing the Brain: Brain-Machine Interfaces and Neuromodulation
- Understanding Human Thought: Decisions, Memory and Emotion
- The Brain in Disease: Neurological and Psychiatric Disorders
- The Changing Brain: Development, Learning and Aging
- Neuroscience for Society: Education, Law and Business
"Exciting new science is now possible," says Newsome, thanks to new technologies that have revolutionized the field of brain research. "These technologies are unlike anything we have seen in the previous 50 to 80 years, and they are changing the game completely. They are forcing neuroscientists to reconsider the world of experiments and studies that are possible. We really have to reinvent ourselves."
Newsome has seen major advances and new technologies coming on line in the four key areas needed for brain research – static mapping, dynamic mapping, theory and manipulation. There are dramatic new departures in our ability to make static maps, he says, thanks in large part to the work of Steve Smith, department of molecular and cellular physiology, who developed new microscopy techniques using light field microscopy and array tomography. Another major advancement in this area is Karl Deisseroth's CLARITY brain mapping technology, which renders the whole brain transparent. "That is going to speed the development of the static map dramatically," says Newsome.
In the area of recording dynamic brain activity, new discoveries are allowing researchers to record neurons at greater capacity – from one at a time to now 100, 1,000 or 10,000 at a time, greatly improving the ability to decipher neuron signaling activity. Professor Krishna Shenoy of the department of electrical engineering and Professor Mark Schnizter of the departments of applied physics and biological sciences are major leaders in this effort.
Optogenetics, another development from the Deisseroth Lab, is giving researchers a new way to test theories of brain activity and behavior using light sensitivity. And new advances in theory and computation are providing researchers a statistically sound way of taking massive amounts of data and compressing them into very small amounts of information that can then transmitted from A to B.
"This type of scientific discovery is not going to stop anytime soon," says Newsome. "There are so many creative people – engineers, mathematicians and physicists – who are being drawn into the study of the brain. It will be a true campus-wide endeavor for the next several decades," Newsome adds. "No great university is going to stay great without this type of concerted, broad effort on understanding the brain and on behavior is rooted in the brain."
By Grace Hammerstrom