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A national network of neurotechnology centers for the BRAIN Initiative

Columbia University

The authors of the original proposal for the Brain Activity Map (BAM) Project, which inspired the White House's BRAIN Initiative, issued today a position statement in Neuron proposing the creation of a national network of neurotechnology centers. These "brain observatories" would enhance and accelerate the BRAIN Initiative by leveraging the success and creativity of individual laboratories to develop novel neurotechnologies.

Now in its second year, the BRAIN Initiative is a large-scale, decade-long scientific project with a budget of $300 Million for FY16, that involves more than 100 laboratories throughout the country and has also inspired similar large-scale brain research projects worldwide. On April 2, 2013, President Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative to "accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought." The NIH working group created the BRAIN 2025 report that proposed that the best way to set this vision in motion is to accelerate technology development, as reflected in the name of the BRAIN Initiative: "Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies."

In their recent Neuron paper, the BAM authors strongly support the BRAIN initiative but point out that for the BRAIN Initiative to reach its full potential of creating large-scale tools requires efforts anchored in a center-based paradigm.

"It is our view that the technological challenges that must be surmounted are sufficiently complex that they are beyond the reach of single-investigator efforts; we believe they can only be tackled through highly-coordinated, multi-investigator, cross-disciplinary efforts."

The authors present evidence of past success of existing national center-scale science efforts such as those sponsored by the Department of Energy (DOE) with the Human Genome Project where the rate of return on investment was both economically impressive and scientifically invaluable. The physics and astronomy communities have long embraced the interdisciplinary center paradigm to advance their technology development as no individual university has the funds to develop the magnitude of cutting edge exploratory missions. They raise the question: why are neuroscientists are still expected to work in isolation in the 21st Century?

The BAM authors propose a network of national Neurotechnology Centers as centralized "hubs" to coalesce cross-disciplinary efforts from a spectrum of participants in academic labs, corporate partners and public and private research institutes. These "Brain Observatories" would tackle outstanding neurotechnology development problems on 4 critical areas of the BRAIN Initiative: Connectomics, Nanotechnology; Optical and Magnetic Imaging and Computational Data Mining. Each area has its own outstanding economic, data collection and coordination and scaling issues that would be better served in a national center setting. These centers would be staffed by professional neuroscientists and engineers and thus provide a alternative STEM career path for postdocs and graduate students.

A corresponding author of this article, Dr. Rafael Yuste is the Director of the NeuroTechnology Center (NTC) at Columbia University, a small-scale university-based model for a national neurotechnology centers. The vision of the NTC is an interacting network of tool-building laboratories that create new neurotechniques that serve Columbia University and the scientific community at large. The research mission of the NTC is to draw together interdisciplinary investigators to develop advanced optical, electrical and computational technologies for the study of complex neurobiological systems.

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