Poster Excitement at the Annual BRAIN Initiative Investigators Meeting

Posted on May 9th, 2019

5th Annual BRAIN Investigators Meeting

Posted on May 3rd, 2019

At the 5thAnnual BRAIN Investigators meeting, held in Washington, D.C., both pollen and success were in the air. In the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director BRAIN Initiative Working Group 2.0 Town Hall  on April 11, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins reported that he had just returned from being “grilled” at the appropriations hearing for NIH.

Townhall picture showing several members

They know about [BRAIN], they are interested in [BRAIN], they want to know how [the BRAIN Initiative] is going.” He said, “I was able to tell them that, in this very town, at this very time, some of the best and brightest minds are gathered to work out answers to that question.

From April 11-13, almost 1600 BRAIN Initiative awardees, representatives, and investigators joined federal workers from NIH, NSF, DARPA, IARPA, and FDA, members of congress, members of the media, and the interested public to advance our understanding of the brain and nervous system.

I can tell [the senate subcommittee] confidently that the projects that we have already funded have outstripped the expectations of most of us back four years ago when [this project] got underway” he said, speaking of the BRAIN Initiative, and expressed both pride and hope in the next phase of the initiative, which he implied should lean toward the ethics of neuroscience.

There are some very important and sensitive issues here that need to be included in our conversations, not sort of after the fact, but all the way along,” he said “We are beginning to see some of these applications that are pretty breathtaking and do have ethical considerations.

Plenary Sessions

Each keynote address focused on these breathtaking applications of research and ethical considerations, as well as the bright future of BRAIN Initiative-funded research.

The April 11th talk discussed brain organoids and how Dr. Paola Arlotta’s team made them into more useful models for brain development. “The process of generation of the cell types of the cortex, and perhaps of other regions of the nervous system, is highly constrained,” she said, summarizing her team’s findings.

BRAIN’s focus on ethics was especially highlighted in the April 12th discussion of self-control. This important trait is associated with successful, non-criminal lives, but it also varies naturally from person-to-person and is based on the structure of the brain. Because of this, Dr. Patricia Churchland asked whether prison sentences and jail time are really the best way to handle the issue? We may not have the answer yet, but the question of ethics should be kept in mind as we continue advancing the field of brain research. Other plenary talks covered the subject of how the brain determines it’s relative location in an environment (“Space and Time: Network Dynamics of the Entorhinal Cortex”, presented by Dr. Edward Moser) and how we can measure the brain if it is acting as both a “circuit-like” system and a “hydraulic-like” system (“Dimensionless Numbers in Brain Science” presented by Dr. Marcus Meister).

Scientific Symposia

Thirty-six different BRAIN-funded projects were selected to be presented as Research Highlight Talks, falling into three distinct categories:

Cells and Circuits

This track described technologies and approaches for identifying, mapping, and accessing specific cells and circuits in the brain. In particular, novel technology can map important protein interactions in single cells to identify and classify new type of cells in the brain, and another method marks cells and organelles with nanoparticles designed to detect and report on proteins and other cell structures.

Recording, Modulation, and Imaging Technologies

This track discussed new imaging methods and ways of revealing the structures of the brain, including using ultrasound to both measure and stimulate neurons in macaque brains. New prosthetics such as the Orion implant were also mentioned.

Understanding the Brain

This track discussed mathematical principles behind the “systems of dependence” between neurons that creates the complex connections of the brain. It also covered new insights into developmental steps, perception, and the processing of that perception in the brain.

For the first time this year, attendee-organized symposia highlighted emerging areas of focus in BRAIN, including: Bridging Animal and Human Brain Research with fMRI, Emerging Technologies in Studying Spinal Cord Circuitry and Dynamics, and Neuropharmacology at the Age of the BRAIN Cell-Census. Additionally, focused sessions provided forum opportunities for those interested in specialized topics, such as the BRAIN Initiative Informatics Infrastructure and Frontiers of Non-Invasive Brain Imaging. Specialty sessions incorporated topics like training and neuroethics to help guide current and potential BRAIN investigators in planning, executing, and enhancing their projects.

Poster Sessions

Hundreds of poster presentations by BRAIN-funded investigators were spread across the three-day conference and ranged in topic from new techniques for imaging and visualization to assessments of deep brain stimulation, and brain-to-technology interfaces. 

Poster session picture   Poster session picture

These posters, and the many others on display, inspired vibrant discussion throughout the poster hall. These discussions make excellent jumping off points for collaborations and new avenues of research. They are one of the most valuable aspects of the annual BRAIN conference, according to attendees.

Show Us Your BRAINS!

Upstairs from the poster hall, BRAIN investigators had a valuable opportunity to show their creativity through beautiful works of art in the first ever “Show Us Your BRAINS!” contest. All of the photos and videos displayed the stunning and intricate beauty of the brain, but two of them were voted as the best of the batch.

The first place video winner was “High -Resolution MORF3-labeled Hippocampal Neurons” by X. William Yang from UCLA (MD, PhD) and Kwanghun Chung from MIT (PhD) and was made by preserving pyramidal neurons in a mouse brain with their new method, known as SHIELD.

The first place photo winner was “Light Me Up!” by Andrew Janson, a graduate student research assistant at the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute at the University of Utah. This photo showed off the excitation of neurons caused by deep brain stimulation as branching, lit-up fibers that stretched far into the brain. 

All of the winning photos were a part of BRAIN Initiative research, and appeared in talks throughout the conference, adding additional depth to the art.

Communicating with the Public

With all of this new and interesting research coming out of the BRAIN Initiative, how can scientists and researchers communicate their research to reporters and the public? 

For the first time, the BRAIN Initiative Investigators meeting offered guidance in the form of a three-part communications program. “How to Talk to the Public about BRAIN Science” by NPR’s John Hamilton explained the journalist’s side of things, while “How to Talk to the Media about BRAIN Science” by Emmy-award winning journalist, Betsy Stark, and “How to Use Social Media to Promote BRAIN Science” by Ogilvy Public Relations Vice President, Rohan Verma, sought to help build scientists’ skills in communicating their research to the media and general public.

Are you looking to join the conversation? Want to practice your communication skills? Keep an eye out for the 6th Annual BRAIN Initiative Investigators Meeting in 2020! #studyBRAIN

Congressional BRAIN Investigators Reception

Posted on April 23rd, 2019

The American Brain Coalition partnered with the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus last week for an evening reception bringing over 30 Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative-funded investigators to Capitol Hill.  Three BRAIN Initiative leaders from NIH and NSF were among the attendees and provided thoughtful remarks. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, co-chair of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus, provided remarks on the importance of the BRAIN Initiative to accelerate the advancement of neuroscience research.  Senator Chris Van Hollen spoke as well, relaying his commitment to increasing funding for NIH in his role as member of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee.

summary and recording of this exciting event are available.

Combining Psychiatry and Engineering Toward Treating Severe Mental Illness

Posted on April 23rd, 2019

Cheap, portable scanners could transform brain imaging. But how will scientists deliver the data?

Posted on April 17th, 2019

IEEE Brain Joins the BIA: Bolstering Technological Expertise in Neuroscience and Health Applications of Engineering

Posted on April 10th, 2019

The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative Alliance is excited to announce a new partnership with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Brain Initiative.


BIA and IEEE have overlapping missions that will benefit from this collaboration.  The main goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to accelerate neuroscience research through the development and application of cutting-edge technologies.  The IEEE, the world’s largest professional organization for engineering and technology, fosters technological innovation with a vision of helping humankind.  Similar goals shared by both groups include the development of new neurotechnologies for enabling novel research methodologies and for improving neurological healthcare.

Formed in the fall of 2015, the IEEE Brain Initiative integrates the various brain research activities that were already happening across multiple IEEE technical domains and provides a united front for IEEE to work with other organizations in advancing neuroscience.  IEEE Brain co-chair Paul Sajda, PhD, says that the partnership will help them engage the worldwide neuroscience community.  “We wanted to have more of an impact on the medical and biological side of things,” he says.

Co-chair Jacob Robinson, PhD, agrees, stating, “The partnership between the BRAIN Initiative Alliance and IEEE Brain will help ensure closer collaborations between representatives from various communities, including neuroscience, medicine, and engineering, in developing standards and guidelines for new neurotechnology.”  The development of novel technologies for medical purposes may require the creation of new standards and ethical guidelines. This collaboration could help inform the engineering field of the technological and regulatory needs of the research and medical communities.

“Working with the BRAIN Initiative Alliance will help us better understand the priorities of our collaborators in neuroscience, medicine, and the federal government,” Dr. Robinson explains.  “As a result, we will be able to program IEEE activities to provide increased support to areas where engineering expertise is most needed.” Co-chair Jose Carmena, PhD, adds, “IEEE Brain will add significantly to the BRAIN Initiative Alliance by bringing to the table expertise in all domains of engineering that are germane to advancing neurotechnologies for brain research. “

Already, many members of the IEEE have engaged with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the founding members of the BIA, on the advancement of neuroscience.  Now, NIH and other government agencies help organize IEEE Brain activities and serve on its steering committee.  “I think this alliance will help coordinate activities and make the larger community aware of the synergy between the two initiatives,” says Dr. Sajda.

Some of the recent and future events co-organized by the two groups include a data science workshop for neuroscience professionals and assorted interdisciplinary meetings.  Members of IEEE Brain will be attending special sessions at the Annual BRAIN Initiative Investigators Meeting this week, to offer support and to learn about current projects and technical needs.

According to Dr. Sajda, the BIA/IEEE partnership will “increase the breadth and depth of neuroscience research and translational efforts, leading to a more principled understanding of brain function and new ways to promote and maintain brain health.” 

The BRAIN Initiative Alliance Celebrates Brain Awareness Week

Posted on April 3rd, 2019

This March marked the 25th year of Brain Awareness Week, a global effort launched by the Dana Foundation for Brain Initiatives to raise awareness of brain research and its benefits. The BRAIN Initiative Alliance (BIA), made up of several federal and non-federal partners, shares the mission of informing and engaging the public and scientific community concerning scientific successes related to the BRAIN Initiative and what those discoveries mean in a practical way. The BIA members were ready for the special week of brain awareness to share new insights, exciting new research possibilities, and to involve the public in their knowledge of the brain. 

National Institutes of Health

Several institutes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, showcased interactive exhibits and lectures at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. Attendees were able to hold a real human brain, explore its inner workings and see what happens when the brain is altered by disease and drugs.

To understand what each brain lobe does for perception, thinking, personality and behavior, attendees could interact with a Brain Lobe-oratorium®.

To understand what each brain lobe does for perception, thinking, personality and behavior, attendees could interact with a Brain Lobe-oratorium®. 

NIH scientists spoke about exciting brain research stemming from programs such as the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative.

NIH scientists spoke about exciting brain research stemming from programs such as the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative.

National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is invested in several teams of researchers who are making ground-breaking discoveries and using links from nature to better understand the principles of brain function. During Brain Awareness Week, the NSF shared some of this exciting new research with the public. From studying the brain and nervous system of an octopus to developing artificial whiskers, these teams are dedicated to better understanding the nervous system and overall brain function. One NSF-funded team could very well write an episode for Star Trek, since their research uses light to stimulate neurons into action, and eventually will translate into having a machine that uses actual living neurons to run learning applications.

Picture of an Octopus.  studying the brain and nervous system of an octopus

If you thought bioluminescence was just pretty to look at, NSF-funded researchers are taking it a step further. They are shedding light on how the luminescent properties of glowing organisms – like fireflies, jellyfish, and fungi – can help in the development of “optogenetic” tools. Scientists are using these tools, which use light to turn neurons “on” or “off”, to study how brain circuits generate and control complex behavior.

Picture of luminescent mushrooms.  shedding light on how the luminescent properties of glowing organisms – like fireflies, jellyfish, and fungi

The Kavli Foundation

The Kavli Foundation highlighted the necessity and importance of neuroethics when it comes to brain research. During Brain Awareness Week, they posed questions on Twitter, such as, “When does an engineered brain have rights?” The Kavli Foundation supports the annual Global Neuroethics Summit, which brings together neuroscientists from all around the world so that they can discuss what safeguards are in place and how ethical considerations can be fully integrated into these developments in brain research. 

The Allen Institute

The Allen Institute was active during Brain Awareness Week, sharing content through social media and raising interest and awareness on this complex organ. Links to videos were included each day of the week with a range of topics and interviews with their own neuroscientists. What is involved in modeling the brain? How does the brain perceive color and pattern? How does the brain construct the visual world? These questions were answered in well directed videos posted throughout the week. The Allen Institute also highlighted their large publicly available data resources, and interviewed scientists from around the world who use it. 

picture of a profile with the eye looking at various colored circles.

This special week of activity and involvement from the various members of BIA highlights its mission, that of deepening the understanding of the inner workings of the brain and to use that knowledge to treat, prevent, and cure disorders of the brain. This monumental task requires the collaboration of multidisciplinary teams and the sharing of new discoveries, tools, and knowledge concerning the human mind. The BIA is grateful for the various teams who worked hard to showcase their ongoing dedication and research during Brain Awareness 

Women in BRAIN: Interdisciplinary collaborations in neuroscience research made possible by the BRAIN Initiative

Posted on March 29th, 2019

In her laboratory at Columbia University, Dr. Elizabeth Hillman is busy making modifications to her new microscopy system.  Called SCAPE (swept confocally aligned photon excitation), this platform she has spent several years developing can capture the firing of neurons and the flow of blood through neurovasculature in real time. It can even image living, moving organisms such as zebrafish, fruit fly larvae, or rats.  With a grant from the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, she is now working to make this technology available to other neuroscientists, who can use it for discoveries of their own.

High-speed, volumetric SCAPE microscopy was used to capture the activity of neurons inside freely moving Drosophila larvae. Credit: Hillman lab
High-speed, volumetric SCAPE microscopy was used to capture the activity of neurons inside freely moving Drosophila larvae. Credit: Hillman lab

BRAIN builds collaborations

Scientific advancement is achieved by fostering partnerships and trying bold, new ideas.  An interdisciplinary approach has brought about the greatest discoveries and applications in health and medicine, especially in the past few decades.  Now, the BRAIN Initiative is similarly boosting neuroscience research by enabling collaborations and the development of novel technologies.

The BRAIN Initiative itself was formed from a collaboration between ten of the institutes and centers of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and several other federal research agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  Soon thereafter, these federal partners teamed up with non-federal groups – the Allen Institute for Brain Science, The Kavli Foundation, the Simons Foundation, and Janelia/Howard Hughes Medical Institute – to form the BRAIN Initiative Alliance.  The program supports scientists who wish to expand the scope of their work and test high-risk, high-reward ideas.

As a part of its objective, the BRAIN Initiative encourages diversity within the neuroscience arena.  It provides great opportunities for new or early-stage investigators, enabling scientists from a variety of backgrounds to begin their careers or access advanced research technologies. More women than ever are leading neuroscience research teams and developing novel neurotechnologies, and many of them have been supported by BRAIN awards.

Elizabeth Hillman

Elizabeth Hillman

Dr. Elizabeth Hillman grew up being very curious about how things work. She had a knack for putting things together, and a fascination with images of the inner workings of complex structures like the human body.  Following degrees in physics, where she developed expertise in optics and laser technology, she spent time working in medical imaging where she says she got caught up in the “beautiful revolution of GFP (green fluorescent protein).” There, she witnessed how imaging technology could be applied to medical biology to better understand health and disease.

In neuroimaging, Hillman noticed several challenges.  One was the difficulty of scanning brain tissue beyond a superficial level.  Another was the imaging speed which was required to detect neuron signaling and interactions.  Also, there needed to be a robust method for interpreting data obtained from brain scans in a meaningful way.  

To address these challenges, Hillman brought her physics and engineering experience to her neuroscience lab at Columbia University, where she is a professor of biomedical engineering and of radiology.  There, she and her team have been inventing microscope technologies to image brain structures and activities in three dimensions. “We didn’t really follow any kind of convention,” she says.  So far, she has built nearly 12 different brain imaging systems.  The SCAPE system can now acquire 3D data at speeds 10 to 100 times faster than other modern microscopy technologies with cellular-level resolution.  

Image from the Hillman Lab showing the geometry of the SCAPE microscopy system.  A 3D volumetric image is formed as the oblique light sheet sweeps through the sample.
Image from the Hillman Lab showing the geometry of the SCAPE microscopy system.  A 3D volumetric image is formed as the oblique light sheet sweeps through the sample.
Diagram of the SCAPE instrument
Diagram of the SCAPE instrument.

Because of the immense utility of this system, Hillman is working to help other laboratories obtain their own SCAPE microscopes and learn how to analyze data with them.  Her BRAIN award has enabled her to create an effective team devoted to building SCAPE microscopes and introducing them to other researchers.  Before, Hillman did not have much experience finding collaborators or putting together a support team.  “BRAIN gave me that confidence and the resources for that,” she says.  Hillman has been engaged in outreach as well, traveling to other institutions and conventions where she can demonstrate SCAPE’s capabilities.

SCAPE imaging of a first instar Drosophila melanogaster larva expressing a red fluorescent calcium-sensing protein
Image credits: Venkatakaushik Voleti, Elizabeth Hillman, Cesar Mendes.
SCAPE imaging of a first instar Drosophila melanogaster larva expressing a red fluorescent calcium-sensing protein
Image credits: Venkatakaushik Voleti, Elizabeth Hillman, Cesar Mendes.

Part of Hillman’s current focus is scaling up to meet the demand for fast, high-resolution neuroimaging instruments.  She hopes to further develop the SCAPE system for a wider range of applications, such as medical uses on the human brain.  In the meantime, she is also developing a support system for other SCAPE users, such as writing easy-to-follow instructions on how to build a SCAPE microscope and determining how best to maintain one.

Mala Murthy

Mala Murthy

Dr. Mala Murthy is uncovering the ways in which the brain processes sensory information.  She is a professor of neuroscience and molecular biology at Princeton University, where she is the principal investigator of an acoustic communication laboratory.  Learning how fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) use audible vibrations to communicate can give insight into the neurological mechanisms underlying speech recognition and communication disorders in humans.

The Murthy lab is working to understand the brain circuitry and neural connections involved in interpreting auditory signals and translating them into behaviors.  Male fruit flies use wing vibrations to produce songs as they court females, which the females assess to select a mate.  The goal of Murthy’s research is to understand the neural mechanisms of the processes of interpreting and responding to sounds.

Wing vibration song pattern of a male Drosophila melanogaster in the presence of a female.  Neurological recognition of the song elicits a behavioral response in the female fly.
Wing vibration song pattern of a male Drosophila melanogasterin the presence of a female.  Neurological recognition of the song elicits a behavioral response in the female fly.

To help achieve this, Murthy collaborated with physics researchers to adapt state-of-the-art equipment and computational modeling techniques to assay the activities of neurons in the fruit fly brain during courtship.  “This kind of work relies on new and evolving technology, the majority of which has been funded by the BRAIN Initiative,” Murthy says.  “In fact, the dream of simultaneous recording of all neurons within the brain of a behaving animal seemed far-fetched 10 years ago, but it is now achievable within a number of model systems, including flies.  These tools and technologies have been pushed forward, thanks to the BRAIN Initiative.”

The findings from Murthy’s work will have multiple applications to human health.  Some of the neuropathological complications of diseases (e.g., autism spectrum disorder and Parkinson’s disease, as well as brain injury and stroke), involve a deficit in the brain’s pattern recognition and communication pathways.  Ultimately, she hopes that her research will lead to the invention of simple neural prosthetic devices that could restore function to these pathways in cases of injury or disease.

Ute Hochgeschwender

Ute Hochgeschwender

Dr. Ute Hochgeschwender is using the power of bioluminescence, or light that is produced by living organisms such as fireflies, to activate brain cells.  Growing up in Germany where she received her medical degree, she nurtured a healthy curiosity for all aspects of the natural world and how they fit together.  Her dual interests in both medicine and philosophy nourished a fascination with the workings of the brain.  She still loves learning about developments in different branches of science, such as when she attends the annual BRAIN Initiative Investigators Meeting.  “It’s fascinating to see people from different areas,” she says.  “You get a mental boost from BRAIN.”

Lately, Hochgeschwender has been developing methods to use bioluminescence to modulate the activity of neurons.  Her work stems from optogenetics, an earlier technique which combines fiber optics and genetic engineering to create neurons that can be activated or inactivated by light.  By expressing opsins, light-sensing proteins which generate an electrical impulse when they absorb a photon, in neurons in the brain, these brain cells can be controlled by shining light on them.

Neuron control with fiber optics presents a few challenges. First, light can only affect a tiny area of cells; second, implantable devices are not practical within the brain.  As a professor of neuroscience at Central Michigan University (CMU), Hochgeschwender is working to overcome these obstacles by creating a system wherein neurons generate their own light.  With the resources that her BRAIN awards have provided, she has developed neurons which also express luciferase, a bioluminescent protein which emits light when it reacts with the chemical luciferin.  

Hochgeschwender has also been modifying the opsin and luciferase proteins to achieve higher levels of light output and greater activity control. Potentially, the future could see a vast range of applications of light-controlled neurons, each adapted to a specific purpose.  “It’s an untapped resource,” she says.  “There are many different bioluminescence systems in the natural world.”

Diane Lipscombe

Dr. Diane Lipscombe spends a lot of time travelling around the globe, meeting different scientists and medical doctors to share ideas and findings.  Along with Dr. Hochgeschwender and other neuroscientists, she is leading a new multi-center collaboration called the “NeuroNex Technology Hub,” which partners Brown University with CMU and the Scintillon Institute.  This collaborative effort is developing and refining bioluminescent tools for neuroscience research.

While a graduate student in London, Lipscombe witnessed a then-new method to visualize ions moving through channels.  “It was so cool to see a single protein, watching it open and close,” she says.  Hooked on this phenomenon, Lipscombe became a professor of neuroscience at Brown and has made a career investigating voltage-gated calcium ion channels.  Dysregulation of these channels can result in neurological problems, such as psychiatric disorders, epilepsy, or chronic pain.  Understanding the cellular mechanisms of calcium channel control will open the way for treating these and other neurological conditions.

With Hochgeschwender as a partner, Lipscombe has been developing techniques for using bioluminescence to observe calcium channel activation in neurons. BRAIN resources have provided access to technology and expert assistance to create a system for calcium-stimulated luciferase activity.  “It really helped us; it allowed us to try potentially risky new ideas,” she says.  The work from this initial partnership led to the $9 million award from the NSF to fund their NeuroNex project.

For the time being, Lipscombe’s neurons that glow in response to calcium signaling are especially helpful for visualizing neural circuitry when conducting research.  In the future, perhaps, controlling neuron activity by intrinsic light emission may be an effective means to restore function to damaged or diseased cells.

Schematic of luminopsin (LMO) proteins developed by the Lipscombe and Hochgeschwender laboratories.  Neurons in the brain can be modified to express LMOs.  When a substrate is added, the luciferase domain emits light, which is detected by the light-sensing opsin domain.  Depending on the type of opsin, this can either activate or silence signaling by the neuron.
Schematic of luminopsin (LMO) proteins developed by the Lipscombe and Hochgeschwender laboratories. Neurons in the brain can be modified to express LMOs.  When a substrate is added, the luciferase domain emits light, which is detected by the light-sensing opsin domain.  Depending on the type of opsin, this can either activate or silence signaling by the neuron.