From the BRAIN Director: Follow Me on this BRAIN Journey

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BRAIN Director, Dr. John Ngai

Spring is finally here after a long and difficult winter for our country and the world. No matter where you live or what climate surrounds you, spring uniquely signifies a time of renewal and new growth. This is how I feel as we launch into the next phase of the BRAIN Initiative.

It’s true that BRAIN is not new: this exciting endeavor to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain took flight with the first awards in 2014. At the time, I was an investigator at the University of California, Berkeley, and I was among the first group of researchers to get this work underway. Now privileged to be leading BRAIN, I can see how much “new” has come about: new understandings and new tools … as well as new opportunities and new challenges.

What’s the best way to continue on this productive path?

First – we must maintain momentum by leveraging emerging technologies to create new discoveries about not just neurons and synapses, but about entire neural circuits.

Second – we must use these discoveries to build new therapies for human brain disorders.

And third – we must work hard to share and democratize our newfound knowledge, tools, and treatments as widely as possible.

Here are a few recent examples of how BRAIN-supported technologies are unraveling the circuits and computations underlying complex behaviors. These findings are well poised to launch further progress in both understanding brain fundamentals and treating brain disorders.

  • New (and newly applied) neurotechnologies are helping to control circuits gone askew in neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease. Real-time or adaptive deep-brain stimulation (DBS) is being tested as a treatment to calm tremors (watch this amazing video).
  • A wearable wireless device in development can record brain activity together with other measurements including eye tracking, perspiration, heart rate, and positioning within the individual’s environment – features associated with everyday activities like walking to the corner store. In humans! This, and other “closed-loop” methods that work independently after being implanted will eventually help us understand human behaviors and modulate disordered circuits in real-world contexts.
  • In addition to “supervising” body functions and behaviors, the brain is also the seat of our thoughts and creative expression, such as through art and music. BRAIN-supported work recently decoded patterns of neural activity that generate spoken words and sentences in humans, and used sophisticated machine learning tools to build a speech synthesizer based on these findings (watch this cool video).
  • Finally, let’s not forget: discoveries that will guide new therapies for people more often than not originate in animal models. For example, research with zebrafish shows how computations performed by specific groups of neurons (a circuit) use multiple sources of internal and external cues to decide which direction to swim.

I hope you agree that this breathtaking progress provides much hope for new tomorrows for people with devastating conditions that impair brain function. We can look forward to further leaps ahead from large, potentially game-changing BRAIN projects that promise to transform the way we study neural circuits and ultimately how we treat human circuit disorders. I’ll be touching on these projects over the coming months, so stayed tuned for more information.

I invite you to follow me on this journey. Watch this space for news, commentary, videos of my talks (and a recent conversation with trainees), interviews and more. You can also view all of my past Director's Messages, and be sure to visit the BRAIN Blog for news, events, and funding opportunity announcements.

With respect and gratitude,

John Ngai, Ph.D.
Director, NIH BRAIN Initiative