As the year winds down, STAT reporters are taking a look at the stories they’re most eager to track in 2016. We’ll be running these daily through Dec. 31. Look for more New Year’s predictions here.
President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative is the biggest thing in brain science, and as such it’s what we at STAT have got our eyes on for neuroscience advances in the year ahead.
The initiative awarded its first $46 million in grants in September 2014 and the next $38 million a year later. Although the projects are funded for three years, scientists have already reported interim findings, such as how they used designer molecules to turn mouse neurons on and off. Here are three groups to watch in 2016:
D. Kacy Cullen, University of Pennsylvania
Cullen and his colleagues are in hot pursuit of “neurosurgical reconstruction.” The idea is to rebuild brain circuitry with what they call “living electrodes”: tiny, biodegradable tubes packed with axons, the long filaments that carry signals out of one neuron and into another. The tubes are inserted into a brain, they melt away, and the axons form functional circuits with the rest of the cortex.
It’s already worked in rat brains, the scientists reported in November, so 2016 could bring more progress toward rebuilding brains damaged by trauma and degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Julie Ann Brefczynski-Lewis, West Virginia University
Current neuroimaging technology works only when someone is basically immobilized. As a result, it’s been challenging to study brain activity when people do what they do during their waking hours. Brefczynski-Lewis’s lab is working toward the first mobile brain imager so scientists can peer at brain activity while, for instance, someone is walking, playing a piano, meditating, or socializing.
That device, called the AM-PET Helmet, could not only help crack the mysteries of the human brain, it could also potentially treat neurologic conditions, such as dementia, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and depression. The researchers have already made progress on the device, such as figuring out the best way to arrange detecters around the head.
Nicholas Melosh, Stanford University
A chemist and materials scientist, Melosh is emblematic of the BRAIN Initiative’s efforts to bring new perspectives and strengths to neuroscience. He and his team plan to make self-propelled electrodes to better study both basic brain processes as well as neurological diseases and brain injuries.
Stiff push-in electrodes currently in use are hard to deploy to fine targets. Instead, Melosh envisions thousands of ultrathin flexible electrodes in a single implanted device that “will ‘pull’ themselves from the front” using a sort of front-wheel-drive technology, the scientists wrote in their proposal. They’re also looking for ways of steering the electrodes so “they can extend throughout the brain in three dimensions and plant themselves next to individual neurons.”
That could help basic research, letting scientists measure activity in more precisely targeted brain regions of lab animals, and also possibly help patients, using electrodes to stimulate certain neurons as a way to treat memory problems and possibly even comas.