Neuroscientists Discuss Research Challenges at Capitol Hill Briefing
Leading neuroscientists and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) stressed the need for increased neuroscience funding and collaboration on the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at an NSF briefing July 9 on Capitol Hill co-sponsored by SfN and the Optical Society.
The event featured three scientists talking about their cross-disciplinary research funded by BRAIN: Gary Lynch, a professor at the University of California-Irvine’s School of Medicine; Spencer Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; and Aude Oliva, principal research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Scott Thompson, chair of the University of Maryland’s Department of Physiology and chair of SfN’s Public Education and Communication Committee, provided introductory remarks and helped answer questions from the audience.
“The folks you see here are a real reason why this is neuroscience’s moment,” said Jim Olds, assistant director of NSF’s biological sciences directorate. He added that neuroscience research “has become a global enterprise; it has matured beyond the stamp-collecting phase.”
Fattah, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, expressed his ardent support for neuroscience research. He cited his work to establish a National Brain Observatory as part of the BRAIN Initiative and to have the United States host an international neuroscience conference bringing together government and private-sector entities.
“There’s a lot for us to do together, and even more with the international conference on neuroscience,” Fattah said.
In the pending appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016, Fattah helped to include $146.9 million in NSF’s budget for neuroscience, an increase of $40.5 million above the fiscal 2015 level. The bill sets aside $3 million to begin work on the National Brain Observatory.
Panelists stressed the importance of continued funding for the BRAIN Initiative. Asked by one congressional staffer about practical actions that lawmakers can take to support neuroscience, Thompson replied: “There’s no easy answer to that question other than resources. It all comes down to support for basic research through NIH and NSF.”
“We are losing an entire generation of scientists every day, and we’re losing in the global competition for new patents,” he added.
Panel members said much of the research on the BRAIN Initiative has been done — by necessity — in a decentralized fashion. But Thompson predicted that increased centralization would help further understanding among scientists about how the brain’s different domains interact with each other.
“There is so much that we don’t know,” Thompson said.
In his remarks, Lynch outlined his study of memory and how technological advances have made it possible to zoom in and understand how synapses behave. “We’re going to have a picture of synapses from drug addiction, from schizophrenia — and by picture, I remain really detailed images,” he said.
Smith discussed his development of the twin-region, panoramic two-photon (Trepan2p) custom microscope, which has enabled him to see a much wider portion of the brain — and multiple scales of brain activity — than was previously possible. “We have measured, for the first time, how the conversations between brain areas change, depending on what the animal is looking at,” he said.
Oliva discussed her work on plasticity, describing how her research looks at how the brain and nervous system change structurally and functionally as a result of environmental inputs.
Panelists emphasized the importance of BRAIN funding in furthering their research and promoting collaborations that have led to significant progress in neuroscience advances.
Olds provides a recap of the briefing in Bio Buzz, the official blog of the NSF’s Office of the Assistant Director for BIO.
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