US, EU brain research projects are complementary: Nicholas Spitzer

The eminent neurobiologist speaks about the importance of brain research and its future

Nicholas Spitzer says computers with neuro architectures are going to emerge in the next five to 10 years. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Nicholas Spitzer says computers with neuro architectures are going to emerge in the next five to 10 years. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

This year has been marked by two major initiatives in brain research—launched by the US and the European Union (EU), they are projected to be the next big research initiatives after the Human Genome Project.

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN), announced by US President Barrack Obama in April, aims to get a complete functional description of the brain circuits and develop the tools to decipher the neural codes brain activity.

The EU’s Human Brain Project, launched in October, aims to gain an insight into what makes us human, developing new treatments for brain diseases and building revolutionary new computing technologies.

On the sidelines of the foundation day of the National Brain Research Centre in Gurgaon on Monday, Nicholas Spitzer, professor at the University of California, and an eminent neurobiologist involved in the BRAIN initiative, spoke about the importance of brain research, its economics, and the future of brain research.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What will be the economic impact of the new directions in the study of the brain?

We remember the economic impact in recent years from the Human Genome Project, where the investment of a relatively modest amount of money, $3 billion, led to an economic return analysed 15 years later of some $790 billion. So it is a huge multiplier, and so the expectation is that for the BRAIN initiative, there will be something similar, that there will be investment in building new tools for discovery of the functions of brain, which would lead to the formation of companies; and there will be more jobs; and all of this has economic value for the country.

How are tools important for scientific discovery?

Tools are terribly important for scientific discovery. One remembers that Galileo is often credited with the development of the telescope and pointed at the sky. All of a sudden we understood things about the solar system and about planets that we did not know about before. One can expect that the new tools will present wonderful new knowledge, they will generate jobs, stimulate business, they will be important for the economy of every country that participates.

The BRAIN initiative has important medical goals that include developing novel assays for brain diseases. Many of our neurological disorders are diseases of brain networks, they are not diseases of single neurons. We won’t be able to understand and treat the diseases unless we understand how the circuit functions, requiring recordings of large numbers of neurons. Tools for analysis and models will be crucial for data reduction and management of data streams and it will entail computational models that will allow us to understand the data as it comes in.

There will be development, we anticipate, of powerful technology. Remember, it will be the new tools which will enable progress. Beyond that, computer scientists will look at data mining as we have around a billion neurons.

Can we hope that this will percolate down to treatment of diseases that affect the brain, for instance, Alzheimer’s?

That is definitely what one’s hoping for. With Alzheimer’s and a number of such neurological disorders, one of the things that we recognize now is the importance of early diagnosis. By the time we make the diagnosis, the plaque building in the Alzheimer’s brain is so extensive, there is just no way to get it out. But if we can identify it as Alzheimer’s at a very early point and then find the way to slow down its progression, then we’ll have something very useful for society and reduce the cost of treatment for these disorders which is enormous for all the countries of the world.

It will help us to develop a more specific hypothesis of the pathology and physiology of diseases. It will help us develop new therapeutics like octo-medicine which picks up on octo-genetics that uses light to stimulate channel activity in the nervous system and developing brain-computer interfaces to treat not only dramatic brain injury, but also degenerative disorders which may come upon us with age.

Many companies are looking at neuromorphic computing, or computers that have the morphology, structure and architecture like the architecture of the brain. They want computers that work like brains. Computers with neuro architectures are going to emerge in the next five to 10 years.

How important are ethical questions to such large-scale brain research projects?

Ethics behaviour is an important component of the BRAIN initiative. We don’t know the details yet, but we have been told that a certain amount of the budget for the BRAIN initiative will be set aside, much as it was for the genome project, to promote a very detailed study of the potential impact and cautionary measures that should be taken to prevent disclosure of private information that people will not wish to disclose.

That is a very important process and, I think, in some ways, it is even more important for the BRAIN initiative, as who we are is not just a product of our genome, it is also a product of our experience and the environment we grow up in. So, that is all encoded up here in our brains, and we need to be careful about what we do with that information.

The EU started its Human Brain Project in October. Are these two projects complementary or competitive?

Let me summarize what I think are the main differences between the European brain project, and the BRAIN initiative. The European brain project, with Henry Markram as the head of that ship, is very interested in taking existing knowledge about the connectomes, the anatomical connections, existing knowledge of the functional connections and then taking existing computational models to put all that together, and I think that is a very important objective.

Different from that, the BRAIN initiative is going out and getting new data and new tools. Tools that have not been invented, and new computer models, that will look at new ways of putting together the new data. This is very nicely complimentary to the European objective. There are many people in the US collaborating with the European brain project, and vice versa. So I think it will really enrich what we know, when the two get together.

How is brain research important in developing countries where external factors are crucial for early brain development?

This is a terribly important process and I was excited to hear the secretary of the department of biotechnology talk about the way in which India is tackling this very important problem (the association of nutrition and early brain development). We know now that there are three things which are very important for brain functioning: Diet is one of them, exercise is another one and, remarkably, another one that we don’t think about is social interaction with other members of our species. And those three factors together do a lot to ensure a very active, healthy brain.

Those are things that our mothers and grandmothers told us, so they had some wisdom that we all heard about when we were growing up. The good news is now there is scientific research that is increasingly providing us with the understanding of how it is that those factors are important. For example, exercise leads to stimulation of adult neurogenesis, the generation of new neurons in all of our brains.

We’re beginning now to be able to provide a scientific rationale for good diet, good exercise and good social interactions. So more we understand the brain, the more we would be able to make a convincing argument that perhaps we will be able to get more people to exercise right and participate in social processes.

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