Brain gain: How our region will benefit from the federal BRAIN initiative

Pittsburgh's skilled researchers will expand the boundaries of neuroscience with a new federal initiative

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This past April, President Barack Obama announced a new research initiative "designed to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain" and, ultimately, to develop new treatments and cures for brain disorders such as autism and Alzheimer's, as well as psychiatric illnesses and traumatic brain injuries.

Uniquely, this initiative involves not only the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but partnerships with corporations, foundations and private research institutions. With an initial $100 million allocation and the promise of billions in new funding over the coming decade, the BRAIN initiative represents a tremendous opportunity for the Pittsburgh neuroscience community and the Pittsburgh region more generally.

In fact, the neuroscience community in Pittsburgh is vast, highly accomplished and a major contributor to neuroscience training, research and clinical care. For example, neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have a long history of translating basic science observations into innovative solutions to clinical problems.

Pittsburgh is where the gamma knife for minimally invasive brain surgery was first introduced to neurosurgeons in North America, where Pittsburgh Compound B was developed for early detection of Alzheimer's Disease, and where the concept of building artificial intelligences based on human intelligence was first realized. The research expertise within our community is ideally poised to contribute to the president's initiative.

The Pittsburgh neuroscience community is also at the forefront in educating the next generation of neuroscientists. Students at all levels come to Pittsburgh for their training; across the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon over 500 students chose to pursue neuroscience-related majors.

One program is especially noteworthy because of the partnership between the two universities. Over the past two decades Carnegie Mellon and Pitt have jointly fostered one of the premier neuroscience research and training programs in the world, the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. The CNBC will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2014.

The center is unique in its emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach to studying the mind and brain. Members of the CNBC span disciplines as diverse as psychology, biomedical engineering, cognitive neuroscience, neurobiology, mathematics, statistics, health neuroscience, machine learning, psychiatry and robotics. In a reflection of Pittsburgh's own character, members of the CNBC are highly collaborative -- they break down disciplinary boundaries and bridge across departments and across universities to create new synergies not found anywhere else.

A compelling example of how CNBC faculty work together focuses on the development of brain-computer interfaces for controlling prosthetic devices. This project has combined Pitt's expertise in neurophysiology and engineering with Carnegie Mellon's expertise in the computational sciences to achieve breakthroughs in brain-based control of robotic arms.

This work is highly interdisciplinary, involving neuroscientists collaborating with computational neuroscientists, statisticians, neurosurgeons and biomedical engineers. As recently featured on "60 Minutes," the project has progressed to the point of clinical trials in which a quadriplegic individual was able to feed herself using a robot arm controlled entirely by her thoughts.

At a different level of analysis, other CNBC researchers, including psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists and computer scientists, have developed new tools for mapping the "information superhighways" of the human brain -- the neural fiber tracts that wire together disparate parts of the brain into functional networks. Understanding connectivity within these networks has helped us to understand what is different about the brains of individuals with extremely poor face recognition abilities and, in the near future, may help to guide neurosurgeons in preserving critical brain regions during surgery.

At present, the CNBC is involved in training more than 120 graduate students; CNBC alumni have gone on to become scientific leaders in the field, to pursue successful careers in the corporate world and to found their own companies. Indeed, many of our trainees come to appreciate Pittsburgh as much as we do and often remain in the area, thereby contributing further to the world-class neuroscience community that positively impacts the Pittsburgh region.

It is our firm belief that the mysteries of the brain will only be understood through highly collaborative interdisciplinary research and training. Although we still do not understand how the human brain works, the BRAIN initiative will help jump-start efforts and will bring us closer to the end goal of applying greater understanding to a wide variety of medical and societal challenges.

To the extent that the BRAIN initiative will enable neuroscientists to take greater risks that will lead to greater rewards, the Pittsburgh neuroscience community is well positioned due to our competitive advantage of pursuing truly interdisciplinary research and training for over two decades.

With the advent of the BRAIN initiative we expect new public and private partnerships to emerge in Pittsburgh, helping us to leverage this opportunity and, ultimately, leading to new research and treatment models that will have a tremendous impact on the Pittsburgh region and the world.


Peter L. Strick is the University of Pittsburgh co-director and Michael J. Tarr is the Carnegie Mellon University co-director of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (


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