by Dr. Jim Olds, BIO AD
On Thursday, July 9, I had the pleasure of moderating a wonderful briefing on Capitol Hill, “Mysteries of the Brain: Frontiers in Neuroscience.” The National Science Foundation, Society for Neuroscience, and The Optical Society came together to co-sponsor this opportunity for Congress and the public to hear directly from leading researchers in brain science how far we have come and where we are headed when it comes to understanding the brain.
In 2012, Congress encouraged NSF to create a cross-Foundational activity in Cognitive Science and Neuroscience. Congress recognized that NSF was uniquely positioned to advance research in these areas and NSF responded by developing a cognitive science and neuroscience roadmap outlining our priority areas and potential funding mechanisms.
Then, in Fiscal Year 2013, President Obama announced the multi-agency BRAIN Initiative, with NSF as one of the three lead agencies, along with the National Institutes of Health and DARPA. As a result, the Biological Sciences Directorate—in cooperation with other NSF Directorates (SBE, MPS, CISE, and ENG) —initiated Understanding the Brain, a unique program for fundamental research in neural circuits and neurotechnology, which draws together NSF’s ongoing activities in Cognitive Science and Neuroscience and new BRAIN Initiative activities.
Understanding the Brain aims to generate the tools needed to explore healthy brain function and to establish a comprehensive understanding of how thoughts, memories, and actions emerge from the dynamic activities of the brain. As Congressman Fattah stated at the briefing, “There is so much for us to learn!”
Dr. Scott Thompson, Chair of the Public Education and Communication Committee for the Society for Neuroscience, and Chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, agreed with the Congressman that there is an exciting future ahead for neuroscience and he emphasized the value of training and research for undergraduate students.
Another highlight of the event was watching an introduction to the new video series, “Mysteries of the Brain,” co-produced by NSF and NBC Learn. This series eloquently communicates the value and excitement of fundamental brain research and I hope you will find time to watch these terrific videos online.
After the video, we enjoyed three dynamic presentations from scientists at the forefront of brain research. Dr. Gary Lynch from the University of California, Irvine, has uncovered deep connections between learning and memory and his team’s work has played a key role in forming the modern theory of how synapses—the gaps between adjacent nerve cells—encode memory. Dr. Lynch has received multiple grants for basic brain research from the National Science Foundation with potential applications to education and human health. Recently, Dr. Lynch has been using a novel class of drugs in an attempt to reverse the negative effects of aging on the anatomy and physiology of brain cells.
Dr. Spencer Smith joined us from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he runs a neuroscience and neuroengineering laboratory. Dr. Smith is working to understand neural circuits to expand our understanding of how the brain processes information. Dr. Smith and his multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers are developing novel optical systems to create high resolution images of nerve cell activity, for which he and his colleagues received one of the first BRAIN EAGER grants from the National Science Foundation.
Finally, we were privileged to hear from Dr. Aude Oliva from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Oliva has also received support from the National Science Foundation, including a Faculty Early Career Development Program grant for her work categorizing and identifying visual scenes. Dr. Oliva’s work combines state-of-the-art methods in neuroscience, cognitive science, and computer science to discover and model how perception and cognition are realized both in human and in artificial minds.
These three speakers discussed new, key, discoveries about the organ we think of today as more efficient than a 20-Watt ultrahigh performance supercomputer—the brain. They shared new insights about everything from how individual neurons operate to how distant parts of the brain work together, enabling us to learn, see and do almost everything we do. It was so exciting to hear how science is finally unlocking the secrets to how memories are made and retained, and how we are developing new high-tech tools for seeing the brain in action. It was evident some of this research will be the foundation for future treatments for degenerative brain diseases and traumatic brain injuries.
On behalf of the National Science Foundation and the Biological Sciences Directorate, I want to thank everyone involved in this event. It was a great day for science!