By Tiffany Fox
San Diego, Calif., Nov. 24, 2014 — Representatives from California-based companies, research institutes and patient advocacy groups met for the first meeting of Cal-BRAIN at the University of California, San Diego Qualcomm Institute (QI) recently to discuss the way forward for the program.
The meeting comes on the heels of a state budget signed by California Governor Jerry Brown this summer that allocated $2 million to Cal-BRAIN, or the California Blueprint for Research to Advance Innovations in Neuroscience. Cal-BRAIN is a collaborative statewide network that will complement the efforts of the nationwide BRAIN Initiative announced by President Obama last year, which aims to “accelerate the development of brain mapping techniques, including the development of new technologies.”
Advocates of the initiative predict it will lead to significant advances in treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder and other behavioral health issues. QI is a participant in the BRAIN Initiative.
Ralph Greenspan, director of UC San Diego’s Center for Brain Activity Mapping, organized the two-day roundtable discussion, which featured representatives from Qualcomm, Lockheed Martin, GlaxoSmithKline, Cisco Systems and Thermo-Fisher Scientific, among other companies. Also in attendance were research institutes and patient advocacy groups such as the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, Parkinson’s Action Network, the Alzheimer’s Foundation and the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation.
“California has the high concentration of expertise required for making this project happen, as well as a history of interaction and collaboration and a spirit of innovation,” remarked Greenspan, who is also associate director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at UC San Diego and was one of the original writers of the white paper that sparked the national BRAIN initiative. “The California legislature is seeking matching funds and buy-in from these different stakeholders, including companies and industry organizations representing healthcare, the pharmaceutical industry, high-tech, electronics and information technology. We’d also like them to tell us what they would like to see, and how they can be made partners.”
At the meeting, faculty from the UC San Diego Departments of Psychiatry, Neuroscience and Radiology and Neurosciences gave a clinical overview of the state-of-the-art in brain imaging and the diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders, both at UC San Diego and beyond. Faculty from the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Nanoengineering also gave previews of some of the technologies that will be forthcoming from this initiative.
“The kind of brain mapping that exists is mainly done with functional fMRI, which provides a low-resolution read-out of what’s going on in the brain at very slow time resolution,” explained Greenspan. “An fMRI monitors changes in blood flow after prolonged activity in a certain area of the brain, which does not allow us to determine what parts of brain are communicating with other parts. It’s a very vague, fuzzy, undersampling kind of picture that does not give us at all a good sense of what goes on.
“We really do not have any understanding at all of the mechanisms that have gone wrong in diseases like schizophrenia, and as a result, the treatments mostly relieve symptoms. For diseases like Alzheimer’s, mapping the brain will provide us with a way to better diagnosis before symptoms appear.”
Greenspan said the aim for Cal-BRAIN is to facilitate “a real research network that will allow us to delve into something more quickly and more deeply than might otherwise be done in the more diffuse federal program.”
“The goal is to develop altogether new technologies, or at least technologies that will be substantially better than what we currently have. Given the strong presence in California of innovative companies, this offers a real possibility for economic stimulation in the form of new companies.”
Although mapping the human brain will result in some heretofore undreamed-of technologies, Greenspan noted that many are already beginning to emerge.
“In nanotechnology, we’ll need industry to create nano-scale sensors and possibly new kinds of wireless devices at the micro- and nanoscale. We’ll need new kinds of optical approaches, other physical modalities that are being tried out and might turn out to be useful, as well as aspects that have to do ultimately with the handling of big data — be it analysis and modeling or simulation. The more we know about how the brain does things, the more those principles can be implemented in neuromorphic computing.”
Another important stakeholder at the meeting was UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, who dropped in on each day’s session, as well an evening dinner with the group. UC San Diego is one of two organizational hubs in California that will coordinate research activities, facilitate communication and secure funding for Cal-BRAIN (the other is at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab).
Dani Grady, a volunteer public outreach coordinator for the Kavil Institute and a nationally recognized patient advocate and educator, noted that the patient advocates in attendance were impressed by the Chancellor’s commitment to Cal-BRAIN. “They saw that as a sign of hope,” she said. “The feeling is we’re on a verge of sea change for diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders.”
The next step for Cal-BRAIN will be to organize a patient symposium, scheduled for March of 2015, that will educate the public about Cal-BRAIN and how it can support the community.
Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, firstname.lastname@example.org