NC executive plays key role in brain research project

CorrespondentMay 12, 2013 

One of humankind’s most elusive quests since the beginning of time may have a promising new direction via an ambitious, government-led collaboration of science experts. And a Charlotte man is on the front lines.

Rockell (“Rock”) Hankin, vice chairman of the board of the Kavli Foundation, was a guest of the White House on April 2 as President Barack Obama unveiled the BRAIN Initiative. The program’s immediate goal is developing new technologies that can record or “map” the activities of thousands of individual brain cells and neurons simultaneously; the longer-term goal is to treat conditions including Alzheimer’s, autism, stroke and traumatic brain injuries.

BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) will study ways people think, learn and remember. The Oxnard, Calif.-based Kavli Foundation, which funds research in nanoscience, neuroscience and other fields of study, is one of the main private-sector backers.

Momentum within the scientific community “is large,” said Hankin, who’s also chairman of the board for Semtech Corp., a California-based company that produces analog and mixed-signal devices. (He moved his family to Charlotte because of its quality of life.)

“We wound up meeting with all the leadership in the neuroscience community, with government, with researchers.”

Complexity by numbers

Miyoung Chun, vice president of science programs at the Kavli Foundation who was interviewed simultaneously with Hankin, was in on the first meetings.

In September 2011, she helped organize a group of neuroscientists and nanoscientists at the Kavli Royal Society International Centre at Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire, England. They wanted to refine the concept of brain mapping (quantitative electroencephalogram or QEEG), a diagnostic procedure used in evaluating conditions such as those mentioned above – along with ADD/ADHD, learning disorders, anxiety and depression. Brain mapping uses sensors placed on the head to identify whether symptoms are neurologically based.

Chun explained that the complexity and abundance of hundreds of billions of cells called neurons in the human brain mandate the need for new, more sophisticated tools. “Each of these neurons is interacting with thousands of other neurons, so we’re talking about some trillion interactions,” she said.

Scientists have developed some understanding over time about how neurons act and react, but with limited success. “So far, they know how to measure either each neuron and how it acts, or its neighboring neuron up to maybe 100 or so,” she said.

“We know how to look at the activities of the whole brain in fixed portions at a time. That’s something we can do when we go to the hospital and get what they call functional MRIs (which measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow). They look at the whole brain, but they find portions of the brain lighting up – and each lighted-up place is composed of sometimes 30,000 neurons, or a million neurons.

“So we have a situation where we know how our individual neurons are functioning; we know how most of the large numbers are functioning; but we don’t know the in-between. Understanding that in-between activity will tell us how the brain works. The BRAIN Initiative is meant to try to tackle this problem” by creating the tools that can identify that in-between activity.

Tools, cost, benefits

Just which tools will be used are to be determined, depending on factors including potential effectiveness and cost. Reported possibilities include large numbers of nanoscale electrodes, which can register and stimulate the smallest parts of the brain; optogenetics, which manipulates neurons by using light; and molecular genetics tools that would enable neurons to store records of their own activity to be read out later.

The tools won’t be cheap. Obama wants Congress to authorize $100 million for the initiative in the 2014 budget as a starting point for a project that could take decades. Critics – including some scientists – are quick to jump on the cost, especially in the context of runaway record deficits. Supporters say the possible benefits dwarf financial concerns and that the initial $100 million figure is reasonable.

“Anytime you look at numbers in isolation, you can say they’re very large,” Hankin said. “But the fact of the matter is, this is a $15 trillion economy.

“We have to be able to do things like this that are important to the frontiers of science and pushing the knowledge of mankind. And at the end of the day, if we are successful at understanding how the brain works, the benefits so far outweigh the cost. The return on the investment, not just in terms of economics but in terms of the health of mankind, is just enormous. It has to be viewed, it seems to me, in that light.”

Chun said the initiative will be a more efficient use of funding than in the past because it will involve a more systematic study among all scientists. In fact, she said, well-known neuroscientists at universities such as UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke and N.C. State can partner with such federal agencies the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in support of the research.

But Hankin and Chun always came back to their bottom line of a potentially larger, greater good.

She cited the many groups of people who could benefit by a greater understanding of the brain and an improved ability to manipulate neurons – whether experiments are on human or animal models – and spoke of the case of a patient who had a stroke about 15 years ago.

“She has not been able to move her neck down for 15 years,” she said. “But by understanding and stimulating about 96 neurons in her brain, she can now, just by thinking, move her robotic arm and drink her morning coffee. ... Imagine if we can know how those brain activities work for, let’s say, 10,000 neurons or 100,000 neurons. Maybe she can even walk.”

Advancements could have similar benefits for people with prosthetics, including veterans, Chun said, simply by stimulating or inhibiting some neurological cells in the brain. Epileptic episodes can be stopped; deep brain stimulation can help Parkinson’s patients in a much less invasive way.

“We also know that many of the behavior-related diseases like depression and autism are related to neurocircuit activity,” she said.

Teamwork and trials

Hankin and Chun are excited by BRAIN’s groundswell of support within the scientific community and by what that collaboration and others could yield.

“Not only will neuroscientists be involved in the initiative,” Chun said, “but also engineers, physicists, chemists, materials scientists, computer scientists ... to develop new tools, to develop new computer models, understand theories.”

She said BRAIN also will be a rare unifying force for research agencies NIH, NSF and DARPA, as well as private-funding agencies such as the Kavli Foundation. “In addition, we think the development of tools and knowledge out of this initiative will galvanize great numbers of industries to generate better, smarter machines, a smarter workforce, smarter computers.”

The project will get intense scrutiny. Because the public is going to want full disclosure on program specifics – how research results will be made available; how the data will be implemented to solve problems ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to learning disabilities; ensuring participants represent a diverse cross-section of the public; monitoring potential abuses of new findings – Obama has said he wants a study of the ethical, legal and societal implications of the research.

“The whole idea is that everything that is federally funded, all the data will be completely open and can be used by all,” Chun said.

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