From June 12 to July 24, WBUR’s Commonhealth blog will present a weekly series “Brain Matters”, reporting on advances in brain science. Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and Ed Boyden ’99, MNG’99, an associate professor at the McGovern Institute, are among the researchers interviewed in Part One.
The need to understand, treat, and prevent brain disorders is urgent. Such disorders affect at least a billion people worldwide. National Institute of Mental Health director Tom Insel estimates the global cost from brain disorders is around $2.5 billion dollars, “and will go up more than double over the next two decades.”
To address this need, in April 2013 President Barack Obama committed an initial $100 million to fund the development of better tools to study how the human brain works. The initiative—Brain Research through Advancing Neurotechnologies (BRAIN)—aims to identify every neuron in the human brain, and to improve mapping the way groups of neurons work together.
In making the announcement, Obama noted that humans have sent people to the moon, yet “we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter between our ears.” One reason for this? The specialized tools needed for this type of investigation didn’t exist until recently.
In the past few years, the collaborative efforts of researchers from various fields of science have led to the development of many promising new tools. “We might be in the golden age of making such tools,” notes MIT’s Boyden, “because most fields of engineering had not been applied to the brain, so there’s just a gold rush of possibility.” Boyden is the co-creator of optogenetics, a method of manipulating nerve cells in the brain using light.
To learn more about how researchers are working to unlock the mysteries of the brain, visit Brain Matters.
Video: WBUR talks to 11 young neuroscientists about their research, including five from MIT.