March 20, 2015
2 min read

NIMH outlines latest initiatives during Brain Awareness Week

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The National Institutes of Mental Health recently marked Brain Awareness Week, an annual celebration of neuroscience featuring school visits, community lectures and laboratory tours focused on brain science.

This year, the NIH has made several significant advances in the area of neuroscience and mental health through its NIH BRAIN Initiative. The BRAIN Initiative is aimed at developing technologies to map the circuits of the brain to understand their effect on cognitive function and behavior.

Thomas Insel

Thomas Insel

“We think that tools that can decode the language of the brain at the speed of thought can also help us diagnose and ultimately treat mental disorders,” NIMH Director Thomas Insel, MD, wrote in a blog post. “If mental disorders can be defined as circuit disorders, what some have called ‘connectopathies,’ one of the fruits of the BRAIN Initiative will be the tools to define mental disorders with greater precision.”

On his blog, Insel listed some of the most important developments in brain science over the past year.

1. The Human Connectome Project has generated data on more than 500 subjects.

In the same way that the Human Genome Project has created a map of human genetic sequence, the Human Connectome Project is working to provide a “reference atlas” of macro-level brain connections. This data will in turn be used to evaluate brain development, diseases and differences between species. Within the next few months, the Human Connectome Project is expected to complete its multimodal study of 1,200 healthy adults, including 300 pairs of twins, Insel wrote on his blog.

“Already, data on over 500 subjects have been made public, creating an unprecedented treasure trove for students who want to explore individual variation in brain pathways,” Insel wrote.

2. The NIH BRAIN initiative has recently launched its first 58 projects.

As part of the BRAIN initiative, the NIH has funded numerous projects, and 58 have launched recently, according to Insel. One of these features wireless nano-stents as sensors to make a network in the brain’s blood vessels, essentially creating a GPS map across the networks of the brain. Another project will use focused ultrasound to noninvasively activate deep brain structures. Projects have also been initiated that will focus on new imaging tools. One such project is aimed at increasing spatial resolution 100-fold, and another will seek to capture regional activity in ambulatory study subjects.

“We don’t know if any of these high-risk projects will succeed, but the BRAIN initiative, like the Apollo program — another great American project — is an opportunity to push the boundaries of how we study this frontier, in this case inner space rather than outer space,” Insel wrote.

3. The BRAIN Initiative has announced plans to develop new brain recording/stimulation tools.

According to Insel, the NIH BRAIN Initiative has also begun to formulate plans to develop invasive brain recording and stimulation technologies for patients with neurological disorders. Additionally, the NIH will create a training arm to educate scientists in the use of these new technologies, and will reach out to small companies to join the effort.

“We will be expanding our current efforts to define the different types of brain cells and brain circuits, as well as developing new tools for large-scale recording and decoding of brain circuit activity,” Insel wrote.