With nearly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections, the human brain remains one of the greatest mysteries in science and one of the greatest challenges in medicine. Neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, and traumatic brain injury, exact a tremendous toll on individuals, families, and society. Despite the many advances in neuroscience in recent years, the underlying causes of most of neurological and psychiatric conditions remain largely unknown, due to the vast complexity of the human brain. If we are ever to develop effective ways of helping people suffering from these devastating conditions, researchers will first need a more complete arsenal of tools and information for understanding how the brain functions both in health and disease.
Why is now the right time for the NIH BRAIN Initiative?
In the last decade alone, scientists have made a number of landmark discoveries that now create the opportunity to unlock the mysteries of the brain. We have witnessed the sequencing of the human genome, the development of new tools for mapping neuronal connections, the increasing resolution of imaging technologies, and the explosion of nanoscience. These discoveries have yielded unprecedented opportunities for integration across scientific fields. For instance, by combining advanced genetic and optical techniques, scientists can now use pulses of light in animal models to determine how specific cell activities within the brain affect behavior. What’s more, through the integration of neuroscience and physics, researchers can now use high-resolution imaging technologies to observe how the brain is structurally and functionally connected in living humans.