Marder '69 joins Obama neuroscience 'brain trust'
She is one of 14 all-star scientists charged with defining new research initiative
On April 2, President Barack Obama unveiled a $100 million research initiative aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the brain. Before an audience of scientists and representatives of major funding agencies in the White House’s East Room, Obama likened the initiative to the Human Genome Project in its potential to spur innovation and economic growth.
Neuroscientist Eve Marder '69 was in the audience, and not just to cheer on the president. She attended the event as a member of the initiative’s advisory board, the “brain trust” of 14 all-star scientists charged with defining the project and its goals.
Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative will research brain function — from individual neurons to entire circuits, and their interactions. Researchers believe that deeper knowledge of circuit function will advance understanding of how the brain produces complex thoughts and behaviors, and provide insight into devastating diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and autism.
Brandeis is the smallest research university represented on the advisory board, which includes neuroscientists (and one Nobelist) from Stanford, the California Institute of Technology, Harvard, Brown and Princeton.
“We’re at a very interesting and exciting moment in neuroscience research right now because the technological innovations of the last decade have completely transformed the kinds of experiments we can do today,” says Marder, a past president of the Society for Neuroscience and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “We couldn’t even dream of these experiments 15 years ago.”
The advisory board’s job is a heady one: to figure out how to achieve the initiative’s sweeping vision to develop new technologies that will facilitate asking and answering numerous questions about the brain in health and disease. The board will identify high-priority research areas and projects that deserve additional funding, determine which new technologies to develop and which model systems to employ, and manage many other aspects of the initiative.
At the White House event, Obama spoke of the economic benefits of the scientific effort. “Today I’ve invited some of the smartest people in the country, some of the most imaginative and effective researchers in the country … to grow our economy; to create new jobs; to reignite a rising, thriving middle class by investing in one of our core strengths, and that’s American innovation.” He reminded listeners that every dollar invested in mapping the human genome returned $140 to the economy.
He also underscored the scientific adventure that awaited researchers. “As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” Obama said.
Funding to support new neurotechnologies, such as imaging, is at the heart of the initiative. In a budget Obama sends to Congress next week, he will ask the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation to help get the project off the ground.
It’s impossible to know exactly what the effort will yield in scientific advances, says Marder, who is thrilled about the BRAIN Initiative’s ambitious, even audacious, goals.
“Do I think new technologies will drive exciting new experiments?” she asks. “Absolutely. Will there be completely unanticipated breakthroughs in health? Absolutely.”