Advancing our understanding of the brain has become a national agenda spanning many agencies using a considerable fraction of our nation’s research efforts, exemplified by the multi-institutional efforts of the BRAIN Initiative. From fundamental science to a greater understanding of human health, the charge has been led by the biological sciences. With unprecedented knowledge and measurement tools, this initiative charts a strategic path forward in terms of the roles that bioengineering, chemistry, and other disciplines can play in helping to meet this grand challenge.
Key questions covered within this initiative include the following: What is the chemical nature of thought? What is memory? Can we measure the dynamic chemical content or moment-to-moment dynamics of structure of the brain? The brain is a complex organ in which chemical-spatial-temporal processes play crucial roles throughout life. A neuron can respond to an external signal by releasing the cell-cell signaling molecule nitric oxide or by opening an ion channel complex to molecules that vary in weight by a million-fold. A nanoscale synapse can be located at the end of a neuronal process that is tens of centimeters away from the cell soma to which it transmits information. And of course, synaptic connections can vary their efficacy over a millisecond, but memories persist for a lifetime. These widely varying scales are difficult to cross using existing measurement modalities, leaving many critical measurements unobtainable. Technological challenges associated with in vivo imaging, molecular characterization, and speed of measurement, strike at the heart of the challenges with these measurement goals.
Along the lines of uncovering fundamental knowledge, it is almost inconceivable that more than a decade into the ‘omics era, we still do not know the full “parts list” of the brain, nor do we have a complete census of the cell types within this most complex organ in the body. Answering these challenges will be at the heart of measurement efforts that will rely on experts in spectroscopy, spectrometry, electrochemistry, optics, genetics, and nanotechnology, as well as informatics.
Addressing these grand challenges in measuring the complex spatio-temporal processes in the brain will require that the participating physical and biological scientists together with the bio-, mechanical, and electrical/computer engineers, as well as other stakeholders, integrate their thoughts and identify research directions.
October 2016 NSF Workshop
Read the final report from the 2016 NSF-sponsored workshop, "Measuring the Brain: From the Synapse to Thought" organized by Beckman Institute researchers Rohit Bhargava and Jonathan Sweedler. Martha Gillette, working group co-leader also participated. More details on workshop participants can be found in the workshop report appendices, and a brief overview in the editorial that appeared in Analytical Chemistry in April 2017.