How does the brain work? This might be the biggest scientific question of the 21st century, and many scientists say that we’re just scratching the surface when it comes to understanding how neurons work together to create complex thoughts and behaviors.
At Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), a team of researchers spanning across neuroscience, psychology, engineering, statistics, computer science, and machine learning has come together under the CMU BrainHub research initiative to answer the most critical questions about the human brain. And it’s their cross-disciplinary approach that’s made their work so successful thus far.
Carnegie Mellon University initiated BrainHub as a way to bring together faculty in all disciplines across campus. The research initiative will focus on building tools, reflecting the National Institute of Health’s priority on brain research. In the last decade, researchers have made significant strides in brain research, including the sequencing of the human genome and increased resolution in imaging technologies. Moving beyond that, BrainHub aims to develop probes that will record neuron activity so that researchers can decode what that activity means.
Alison Barth, a professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon and a member of the executive board of BrainHub, believes the first step is to developing anatomical methods is to map neuron connections. The human brain contains over 100 billion neurons with about 10,000 different types of neurons.
“Neurons communicate with each other in a stereotypical manner,” says Barth. “Neuron A talks to neuron B and neuron B talks to neuron C. But neuron A won’t communicate with neuron C. And we want to understand the logic behind this communication.” The scope goes beyond what neurons are communicating, though – researchers believe that neural circuits also contain a genetic component.
Over the next five years, BrainHub will be funded by about 75 million dollars from a variety of sources. Researchers hope that they will begin to understand more about neurological disorders, such as autism and epilepsy by understanding the ways that neurons communicate with each other.
The research should also help to develop new diagnostic and screening tools. Synapses are a critical part of neural function, and changes in synapse function are observed as sensatory stimulation. In the first few years of human life, the number of synapses increases, but then they begin to be pruned away. It is during this pruning process that abnormalities like autism occur. BrainHub researchers hope to develop technology that will count the number of synapses to see how and if numbers can be changed.
This research does present a few challenges, because in most cases collecting brain tissue specimens can be difficult – it’s an invasive process. Barth says researchers will begin with stem cells to characterize the differences in neural circuits and will look at how disease states are associated with altered synapse states.
“The research and this initiative really speak to the importance of interdisciplinary studies,” says Barth. “Our expertise is focused on fundamental questions of curiosity and the push to have 21st century science answer our biggest question – how does the brain work?”
Soniya Shah is an on-staff contributing writer at MedTech Boston. She's a senior at Carnegie Mellon University pursuing a BS in technical writing. She has experience as a ghost writer and medical writer, and in developing software documentation.
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