Brain initiative on minds of many in science

Published in UT San Diego, June 10, 2013

The processing power of the average brain is 100 MIPS (million computer instructions per second). Said another way, the brain is like a 168,000 MHz pentium computer. Yet I still have to remind Neil not to miss the turnoff at Grand and Garnet.

But there is hope. Coming to San Diego soon — the BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). This initiative, launched with about $100 million in federal funding, has the ambitious goal of accelerating the development and application of tools that will allow researchers to understand the inner working of individual brain cells. In his remarks announcing the program, President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships and specifically mentioned the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, which has earmarked $28 million to work across traditional boundaries of neuroscience.

The last scientific project of this scope was the human genome, formally started in 1990, and every dollar invested to map the genome has returned $140 to our economy, according to government data.

We remember San Diego in the early 1980s before the start of Qualcomm and when you could count the number of life science companies on two hands. Since then, the region has experienced an explosion in new technology and life science companies that have spun out of the region’s universities and research institutes. Now San Diego has another big opportunity to capitalize on a potentially groundbreaking initiative.

A cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism. Cellphones that mimic our brain, perhaps eliminating the need to use an external device. A robot that can learn. These are some of what could be achieved if the BRAIN Initiative achieves its full potential.

So on a recent Friday evening, we joined almost 200 people to learn more about the possibilities at Mapping the Active Brain: Unlocking the Next Frontier, sponsored by Connect, and we asked a number of business and science leaders for their perspective on the future.

• Terrence Sejnowski, Ph.D., director, Institute for Neural Computation, Salk Institute for Biological Studies and UC San Diego

“Most of the current drugs to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and depression were discovered serendipitously more than 20 years ago. There are no new drugs in the pipeline. It costs $600 billion-plus a year for mental health care. New drugs could dramatically reduce this cost. Currently, we don’t have the tools necessary to accelerate drug discovery in this area.”

• Joe Panetta, president and CEO, BIOCOM

“The Southern California region has a uniquely collaborative spirit and the greatest concentration of world-class research institutions. Research tools development is one of our strengths, given that San Diego is the home of Life Technologies that built the products to facilitate the genomics and sequencing revolution. What will be necessary to ensure that San Diego is a leader in the development and commercialization of products is funding for early-stage companies.”

• Ralph Greenspan, Ph.D., director, UCSD Center for Brain Activity Mapping

“The key to our success will be funding, collaboration and cooperation. The list of relevant San Diego institutions appears to be endless. A few are UCSD, Salk, Sanford-Burnham, Scripps and San Diego Supercomputer Center. The interdisciplinary advances that will be necessary are our strengths. We have that rare atmosphere and tradition that makes it easy for scientists in different institutions and different disciplines to work together.”

(Greenspan admitted that he was one of the early critics of the human genome project and said, “I’m happy to eat my words.”)

• Roger Bingham, co-founder and director, The Science Network

“Understanding the brain is hands-down the most exciting and essential adventure that we can embark upon. It is a no-brainer. The brain is the driver of the human enterprise. To create a realistic possibility of treating devastating mental disorders, we need to comprehend the dynamic activity of complex neural circuits. The BRAIN Initiative seeks to accelerate our search for solutions.”

(A terrific Science Network video about the BRAIN Initiative is available on its website.

• Duane Roth, CEO, Connect

“The collaboration that currently takes place between the research institutions and industry positions San Diego to be a leading cluster in this pursuit. Through organizations like Connect and BIOCOM, we have the resources to move the discoveries from research labs to patients.”

Rule No. 235: When is the BRAIN a no-brainer? When it is located in San Diego.


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