Brandeis among the first institutions to receive grant money from BRAIN initiative

October 16, 2014

In April 2013, President Barack Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, a project offering over $300 million in grants to public and private institutions. The goal of BRAIN is to create a revolutionary new map of the brain that shows individual cells and complex neural circuits and how they interact. Through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Brandeis was one of the first institutions to receive some of this grant money, allocating $3.4 million to Drs. Sacha Nelson and John Lisman (BIOL) in order to conduct research on the differentiation of nerve cells in the brain.

“The complexity of our brains arises in part from the fact that there are many more different types of nerve cells than of cells in all other organs put together,” Nelson said. “We are interested in the genetic mechanisms that establish and maintain these differences.”

Working alongside postdoctoral fellows Erin Clark and Yasuyukii Shima, as well as groups headed by Carlos Lois of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Partha Mitra of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Gill Bejerano of Stanford University, the research team will be studying and comparing the cerebral neurons of mice and rats.

Nelson said that mice are genetically tractable organisms and that he and his colleagues have been studying them for some time.

“Recent technical developments have made it possible to copy the genetic manipulations made in mice to target specific neuronal populations [in] other species. Rats are among the closest species to mice which are readily studied in the laboratory,” said Nelson. “Their genomes and brains are of comparable similarity to each other as are ours to chimpanzees. By studying two very similar mammalian species we hope to be able to pinpoint differences in the genome that give rise to differences in the properties of neurons in the two species.”

Despite the differences between humans and rodents, this research can be helpful in understanding the human mind.

“All of the cell types identified in the brains of mice and rats [have] close homologs in the brains of humans and non-human primates,” elaborated Nelson.

The process of applying for the BRAIN initiative grant took nearly a year and required a formal application, peer reviews by a “specially constituted panel,” and finally an administrative review.
When asked about how he had first heard about the initiative, he replied, “[Through] multiple methods; Professor Eve Marder was on the panel that drafted the first guidelines for the program, [the] program officers who administer my other grants at NIH informed me about it and I read announcements from NIH.”

“We [had] been doing related work for some time and the call for proposals was specifically aimed at the kind of genetic characterization of cell types we wish to undertake as the next step,” said Nelson when asked about why he chose to apply to the BRAIN initiative.

The inner workings of the human brain remain one of the most complicated and least understood mysteries of biology. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, neurological and psychiatric disorders affect tens of millions of people each year, and yet less is known about it than the surface of the moon. The hope is that this information will contribute to the discovery of treatments, cures and perhaps even ways to prevent brain disorders.

The official statement published by the White House addresses what the BRAIN initiative represents.

“The BRAIN Initiative has the potential to do for neuroscience what the Human Genome Project did for genomics by supporting the development and application of innovative technologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function. It aims to help researchers uncover the mysteries of brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI),” the statement reads.

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