Neuroscientists and engineers are collaborating to build multielectrode arrays that can simultaneously record electrical signals from thousands of neurons. (Courtesy of imec)
The suite of tools scientists and clinicians use to study and treat the brain are called “neurotechnologies.” They range from the single electrodes that have been used for decades to record the electrical activity of a nerve cell to brain-machine interfaces that read patterns of brain activity to precisely guide artificial limbs. Scientists have been developing new neurotechnologies for decades but recent breakthroughs in other fields, especially genomics, nanoscience and physics, have led to an explosion of new tools. These include light-sensitive proteins that can turn brain cells on and off and new microscopes that can capture the activity of the entire nervous system of a fruit fly in real time.
Accelerating the development of new brain research tools is a central goal of the 12-year Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative (as well as its precursor, the Brain Activity Map Project), launched in 2013 by President Obama. At the top of the tool list are brain mapping techniques with which researchers can monitor and manipulate ensembles of neurons, or circuits. Many neuroscientists expect that once they can monitor circuits, the level of organization at which our thoughts and actions arise, they will finally begin to understand how the brain functions and how it dysfunctions under certain conditions.
To understand the language of the brain, we will need to monitor thousands and then tens and even hundreds of thousands of neurons networked across the brain. Nanotechnology promises to make this – and more – possible.
Today, most people with a basic science education know what a neuron is. But it was only in the late 19th century that Spanish neuroanatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal convincingly showed that such cells – rather than an interconnected net of tissue – formed the basis of the nervous system.
In 2011, neuroscientists and nanoscientists had an idea for revolutionizing our understanding the brain. Now that idea is a national challenge, as President Obama's BRAIN Initiative seeks to decipher the neural code that gives rise to our perceptions and experience.
How does the brain gather information from the outside world and use it to guide behavior? Three neuroscientists who have spent much of their research careers trying to answer that question were awarded the 2012 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.