Campus Research Has Ties to BRAIN Project

President Barack Obama has unveiled the BRAIN Initiative, a project that will map the inner workings of the brain to discover answers to diseases such as epilepsy, autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

At Rutgers–Camden’s Center for Computational and Integrative Biology, students and faculty members are collaborating on research that relates to the work outlined in the president’s initiative. The center combines the expertise of researchers from traditional biomedical disciplines — such as biology, chemistry, psychology, and physics — with the analytic methods employed by mathematicians and computer scientists to understand how individual biological systems work.

Joseph Martin, a professor of biology at Rutgers–Camden, talked about the BRAIN initiative and how it relates to the work done at Rutgers–Camden’s CCIB.

Dr. Joseph Martin (right) works with Steve Moffett, a third-year Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers-Camden, on a project in the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology.

Dr. Joseph Martin (right) works with Steve Moffett, a third-year Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers-Camden, on a project in the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology.

President Obama unveiled details on a new initiative to study the human brain with the goal of treating or curing Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders. How significant is this study and, in your opinion, what kind of breakthroughs could it lead to and what does it mean for the future of neuroscience?

Martin: The rationale behind the initiative is to create a major boost to the basic science of neuroscience.  This aim is exactly right for the development of new treatments, since the most effective initiatives in science are not those that target a particular disorder but those that aim to address a basic question that is poorly understood.  In an analogous way, the human genome project was not focused on developing a treatment for a specific disease, but instead revealed a huge amount of data that has within it clues to cures for many different disorders.  In the case of the BRAIN project, an understanding of the neuroscience of how cells interact in large numbers can provide insights into disorders ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to schizophrenia.

The initiative will center on the recording and mapping of brain circuits to “show how millions of brain cells interact.” Is this uncharted territory? How, exactly, do these cells interact and what is not known about them that this study might make clear?

Martin: In neuroscience, the interactions of small groups of brain cells (neurons) have been studied in increasing detail for many years.  A neuron is known to have a stereotypical type of electrical activity that can conduct over long distances in extensions (axons) of the cell by a regenerating “spike” or “action potential”.

At the end of the axon, there is a gap that is crossed by a chemical messenger or “neurotransmitter,” which then affects the next neuron.  The processes of conduction of spikes along axons and the communication between cells by neurotransmitters are well-studied. Other studies investigate the relation of the overall activity of the brain (EEG and fMRI) to behavior.

What is missing is the information about what happens when huge numbers of individual neurons communicate.  If you picture the erratic behavior of a single ant, it can be analyzed in great detail.  However, even a complete understanding of the movement of a single ant gives little information about the behavior of the colony.  New characteristics emerge as a system goes from a few to a multitude of elements and these novel features are termed “emergent behavior.”  The uncharted territory of the BRAIN initiative is in the analysis of millions of neurons in great detail so as to clarify the emergent behavior that leads to brain function (i.e., behavior).

Rutgers–Camden’s Center of Computational and Integrative Biology combines the expertise of researchers from traditional biomedical disciplines with the analytic methods employed by mathematicians and computer scientists to understand how individual biological systems work.

It seems that the collaborative work done at the CCIB is similar to the BRAIN initiative. Can you explain how the CCIB’s methodology is similar to this brain study? Is Rutgers–Camden’s CCIB is training students to do research exactly like the kind being done on the brain study?

Martin: Like the CCIB, the BRAIN initiative will depend on the collection of large amounts of data and the development of computational models.  The output of the computational models then provides feedback onto experimental studies, suggesting new experiments and directions.  CCIB students have two mentors, one computational and one more experimental, so they will be fully versed in the kind of thinking that will be necessary for the BRAIN project.  The BRAIN project (and other similar projects) will require researchers who have one foot in the computational approach and another in the experimental way of thinking.  The CCIB’s goal is to foster the kind of interdisciplinary researcher required for the twenty-first century.

Is the CCIB working on anything now that involves the human brain? What other projects are being worked on at the CCIB?

Martin: Actually, it is expected that the BRAIN project will start out using simpler model organisms and working up to more complicated mammalian brains.  The zebra fish has a small brain as compared to a human brain, with hundreds of thousands rather than billions of cells.  However, the seemingly more tractable fish brain is still very challenging and will require new technology to measure neuronal activity and modern computational power to analyze the data. The strategy of using a model organism has been very effective and has led to many Nobel prizes in Medicine and Physiology.

In the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology (CCIB), researchers are already attempting to establish the relationship between brain activity and overall function (i.e., behavior).  Studies range from anatomy and activity of small groups of cells (related to feeding behavior in fish) to overall brain activity in the form of the sleep/wake electroencephalogram (EEG) or cognitive function.  (Some of these latter studies do examine the human brain.) On the theoretical side, collaborations are modeling the emergent behavior of huge numbers of simple neuronal representations in computer simulations.

Posted in: Research Highlights

Comments are closed.