PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Working with a core group of about a dozen other scientists over the last several months, John Donoghue, the Henry Merrit Wriston Professor of Neuroscience and Engineering, helped to catalyze a sweeping new vision for brain research. The idea is to develop the tools and technologies needed to study the activity of the brain on the scale of whole networks of thousands or millions of neurons. That’s the scale at which thought, emotion, creativity, behavior, and disease occur. Arto Nurmikko, professor of engineering, has also contributed to the formation of this vision.
The idea is now policy with President Obama’s announcement today of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Donoghue, a researcher at the Providence VA Medical Center and director of the Brown Insitute for Brain Science, who will now serve on a committee advising National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins on the initiative, and Nurmikko were both invited to attend the announcement in the East Room of the White House. Donoghue shared his thoughts after the event with David Orenstein.
Please tell us about the experience of being in the East Room of the White House with the President today.
The President’s announcement of a national Grand Challenge on the BRAIN is a spectacularly exciting culmination of a year and a half effort to enhance brain research and technology development through a new national effort.
What has your role been with the BRAIN initiative so far and what will it be now?
I have been part of a group of faculty from a group of US research institutions who developed the ideas for a broad initiative to better understand how the brain works. We believe that the time is right to focus inquiry on the ‘middle scale’ of brain function where interesting features such as cognition or complex behavior emerge from the interactions that occur in large circuits of neurons.
Why would achieving a new level of studying brain activity be a worthwhile "Grand Challenge" of research?
Higher brain functions emerge at the scale of networks of neurons; brain disorders such as dementia, epilepsy or schizophrenia appear to result when networks fail to operate correctly. There is a gap in our knowledge about brain network function because we lack the tools to study large numbers of neurons spread over large regions of the brain. Remarkable advances in nanoengineering, optobiology, and synthetic biology have the potential to provide a set of tools that would allow us to study the brain at this new level. Using this technical foundation, newly enabled neuroscience research could lead to profoundly greater understanding of how brain network function. This knowledge could also lead to new therapies as well as new ‘smart’ technologies that can do tasks now only our brain can do.
How does your involvement in the BRAIN Initiative connect back to the work that You and Professor Nurmikko and your colleagues do at the Brown Institute for Brain Science?
Professor Nurmikko and I have been working with a team of outstanding Brown faculty and students for about the past decade to create a Brain Computer Interface called BrainGate. BrainGate is designed to reconnect the brain to the outside world for people with paralysis. We recently showed that a person unable to move her limbs after a stroke could use her thoughts to control a robot arm well enough to pick up and drink her morning coffee. However, her ability to reach and grasp could not compare to what we can ordinarily do with our own arm. The understanding resulting from the BRAIN project could dramatically enhance the kind of control that can be achieved with BrainGate and even allow a person with paralysis to once again move their own limbs. Finally, the neuroengineering advances of Dr. Nurmikko and his students will make it possible to implant the electronics needed to use braingate inside the body and communicate wirelessly. Discoveries through the BRAIN project have the potential to make this technology better, faster, and smaller.