News: the BRAIN initiative

the BRAIN initiative; Pint of Science; and the cuts at Kings' College

Brain 2025

launched the BRAIN Initiative to ‘accelerate the development and application of new technologies that will enable researchers to produce dynamic pictures of the brain that show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.’ The National Institutes of Health (NIH) convened a working group to develop a rigorous plan for achieving this scientific vision. The group has now delivered its findings and recommendations, including the scientific background and rationale for the BRAIN Initiative as a whole and for each of seven major goals.

In response to the ‘bold and ambitious’ challenge from the president, the working group agreed that accelerated technology development is the key, as reflected in the name of the BRAIN Initiative: ‘Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies’. The group recommends that the BRAIN Initiative develop over a 10-year period beginning in 2016, with ‘a primary focus on technology development in the first five years, shifting in the second five years to a primary focus on integrating technologies to make fundamental new discoveries about the brain’.

In considering these goals and the current state of neuroscience, the working group identified the analysis of circuits of interacting neurons as being particularly rich in opportunity, with potential for revolutionary advances. ‘Truly understanding a circuit requires identifying and characterizing the component cells, defining their synaptic connections with one another, observing their dynamic patterns of activity as the circuit functions in vivo during behavior, and perturbing these patterns to test their significance. It also requires an understanding of the algorithms that govern information processing within a circuit and between interacting circuits in the brain as a whole. The analysis of circuits is not the only area of neuroscience worthy
of attention, but advances in technology are driving a qualitative shift in what is possible, and focused progress in this area will benefit many other areas of neuroscience.’

With these considerations in mind, the working group consulted with the scientific community to evaluate challenges and opportunities in the field, identifying seven high priorities:

I    Discovering diversity: Identify and provide experimental access to the different brain cell types to determine their roles in health and disease.
I    Maps at multiple scales: Generate circuit diagrams that vary in resolution from synapses to the whole brain.
I    The brain in action: Produce a dynamic picture of the functioning brain by developing and applying improved methods for large-scale monitoring of neural activity.
I    Demonstrating causality: Link brain activity to behaviour with precise interventional tools that change neural circuit dynamics.
I    Identifying fundamental principles: Produce conceptual foundations for understanding the biological basis of mental processes through development of new theoretical and data analysis tools.
I    Advancing human neuroscience: Develop innovative technologies to understand the human brain and treat its disorders; create and support integrated human brain research networks.
I    From BRAIN Initiative to the brain: Integrate new technological and conceptual approaches produced in Goals #1­–6 to discover how dynamic patterns of neural activity are transformed into cognition, emotion, perception, and action in health and disease.

The report says that the overarching vision of the BRAIN Initiative is best captured by the final goal – combining these approaches into a single, integrated science of cells, circuits, brain and behaviour. ‘For example, immense value is added if recordings are conducted from identified cell types whose anatomical connections are established in the same study. Such an experiment is currently an exceptional tour de force; with new technology, it could become routine. In another example, neuronal populations recorded during complex behavior might be immediately retested with circuit manipulation techniques to determine their causal role in generating the behavior. Theory and modeling should be woven into successive stages of ongoing experiments, enabling bridges to be built from single cells to connectivity, population dynamics, and behavior.’

The report also identifies core principles for the initiative, including pursuing human studies and non-human models in parallel, crossing boundaries in interdisciplinary collaborations, and establishing platforms for sharing data. Ethical implications are not ignored: ‘Initiative research may raise important issues about neural enhancement, data privacy, and appropriate use of brain data in law, education and business. These important issues must be considered in a serious and sustained manner.’

Needless to say, all this is not going to be cheap: ‘provisional’ budget estimates recommend ‘an investment by the NIH that ramps up to $400 million/ year over the next five years, and continues at $500 million/year subsequently.’ The report concludes that ‘A sustained, decade-long commitment at this level will attract talented scientists from multiple fields to the interdisciplinary collaborations that are essential to the BRAIN Initiative and its ambitious goals.’

- Jon Sutton

A scientist walks into a bar...

While this may seem like the set-up to a joke, on 19–21 May hundreds of scientists around the world did just that. This was ‘Pint of Science’, a three-day science blitz covering a variety of topics, including ‘Matters of the Mind’ – a set of talks on issues within psychology and neuroscience. Over three evenings 10,000 people gathered in pubs and bars to hear about cutting-edge science over a pint.

The aim of the festival (see www.pintofscience.com) was to create a relaxed environment where members of the public can engage with leading researchers. While it only started in 2013, and was restricted to Oxford, London and Cambridge, this year the festival spread to 21 cities across six countries. Speakers were mostly university academics, but other notable participants included award-winning science blogger Suzi Gage and ‘standup mathematician’ Matt Parker. These events were similar to the British Psychological Society’s ‘Psychology in the Pub’ events, but included other activities such as live science demonstrations, pub quizzes, and other opportunities for audience participation.

In Bristol I helped organise events for the theme of ‘Matters of Mind’, where speakers from the University of Bristol shared their knowledge on topics of addiction, memory and sleep. The festival kicked off with talks by Dr Emma Robinson and Professor Marcus Munafò, who spoke on animal models of addiction and emotion recognition in a social world, respectively. Munafò, a professor of biological psychology at the School of Experimental Psychology, warmed up the audience with his latest research, revealing how the shape of beer glasses can impact how much you drink or perceive you have drunk.
The festival also included an engaging talk on drug addiction by the aforementioned blogger and final-year PhD student Suzi Gage. Her presentation discussed issues such as the consequences and potential benefits of certain drugs. As it was a slightly controversial topic, the talk roused some interesting debate in the audience.

Another highlight of the festival was a talk on episodic memory by Dr Obaro Evuarherhe. This presentation focused on how memories are created through a process called ‘synaptic tagging’. Evuarherhe provided some examples from his own research using rats, including sharing photos of the environments he had to build. Although the science behind the concepts was complex, Evuarherhe kept the audience interested with humour throughout. He ended on a bit of ‘advice’: the best way to improve memory? Do memorable things!

Afterwards, Professor Christopher Jarrold spoke on his research in working memory using participants with Down’s syndrome and Williams syndrome. As well, he discussed how speed of processing was an important factor contributing to working memory performance, and how it could fit in the classic working memory model of Alan Baddeley. Perhaps most relevant for a realistic portrayal of psychology, Jarrold introduced one of his experimental paradigms for studying executive control. This paradigm succeeded in illustrating the scientific rigour required for overcoming the methodological difficulties within experimental psychology.

On the last night, Dr Ullrich Bartsch spoke on the science of sleep, dispensing useful psychology-approved advice for getting a better rest. This presentation stood out as it was visually appealing, with a background that mimicked the activity stages of sleep. Bartsch pointed out that several mental health disorders, including depression and schizophrenia, are often associated with aberrant sleeping patterns. He suggested that normalising the sleep of people with schizophrenia may ease some of their symptoms. There were plenty of questions from the audience, including one on how many hours, minimum, are required for sleep (about eight).

Finally, Dr Matt Jones spoke on the use of neurotechnology to investigate research questions in sleep. A particularly fascinating moment was when he showed the audience the brain’s ‘song’ – that is, what a neuron in the hippocampus sounded like as a rat navigated through a maze. The festival ended on an afterparty, DJ’ed by two of our Pint of Science speakers, Evuarherhe and Bartsch. If nothing else, this event smashed through the stereotype of a scientist being boring, stuffy and unsocial. In fact, the speakers were just as happy as any of the audience to unwind with a pint in hand.

All in all, these talks certainly depicted psychology – and science more generally – in a good light. Not only were the speakers engaging, witty and fun, but the research presented was genuinely interesting and new. As well, the science was presented in accessible and unintimidating manner. If all this sounds very appealing, keep an eye out next year, as Pint of Science hopes to continue – growing bigger and better – for as long as possible.

Julie Lee (University of Bristol)

Cuts at King’s College

King’s College London is set to cut up to 120 jobs from its health schools, with decisions based partly on individual grant income. The cuts will be made across the schools of medicine, psychiatry and biomedical sciences, with the Psychology Department one of those affected. Staff chosen for potential redundancy have been selected based on their research income and teaching hours, the College has confirmed.

Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Experimental Neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, has criticised the university’s selection criteria. She commented: ‘Using grant income as a proxy for staff quality indicates that KCL has completely lost any sense of the purpose of an academic institution… people are now doing research in order to get funding, when they should be seeking funding in order to do research.’

Patricia Howlin, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Child Psychology at King’s College, told us: ‘The conditions for getting rid of staff are much more unfair than in the case of the usual dismissal procedure. In those circumstances indidivuals are warned if their work is not up to standard, given set guidelines and the chance to improve and then their position is reconsidered. There has been no warning, no conditions for improvement set and no chance to improve. The last cull, at the Institute of Psychiatry about four years ago, left people very demoralised. I think many good people will try to leave, even if they are not axed this time. Those in charge of running the place and managing (or not) the budgets etc. appear, of course, to be exempt from the process.’

A spokesperson for King’s College said the institution had ‘ambitious’ plans to enhance its position as a ‘world-leading university’. ‘All parts of the college are looking at how they can increase income, control costs and collectively raise performance. We are seeking to reduce our academic payroll costs by 10 per cent and some job losses may be necessary.’ She added: ‘The first stage has been completed with the affected academic staff having being considered on the basis of their research grant income and teaching contact hours. The majority have been informed that they will no longer be part of the ongoing process. Those remaining have been invited to provide information in support of their broader contributions which will help inform deliberations.’
The King’s College branch of the University College Union (UCU) was due to complete a ballot for strike action over the cuts on 25 June.

A petition to oppose the planned redundancies, at tinyurl.com/o9pzyu7, has attracted thousands of signatures including former Dean of the Institute of Psychiatry Sir Robin Murray. 

- Ella Rhodes 

 

Funding News

Elsevier invites applications for its Postdoc Free Access Programme, which allows scholars to access ScienceDirect’s scientific books and journals in their chosen field. Applicants must have recently completed
a PhD and have become unemployed on 1 January 2014 or have a research project ending before 31 August 2014. The programme allows library access for up to six months. Applications should be submitted by 31 August 2014.
tinyurl.com/op99jj9

The Experimental Psychology Society invites nominations from its members for its Prize Lecture. The prize recognises distinguished research achievement by experimental psychologists at an early stage in their career. Nominees should normally have obtained their PhD no more than 10 years previously, although this may be waived by the committee in special circumstances. CVs and a covering letter should be received by 1 September 2014.
tinyurl.com/kb29axu

The European Association of Social Psychology invites applications from its members for its meetings grants to support the organisation of meetings that appeal to other EASP members. There are two awards available: small group awards of €4000 cover meetings with 15 to 30 participants and medium size awards of €6000 cover meetings involving 30 to 50 participants.

The closing date for this round of applications is 15 September 2014. tinyurl.com/2vh6bpy

The International Association for the Psychology of Religion invites nominations for its Early Career Award worth €1000. The award is presented for outstanding research in the field of psychology of religion. Nominees should be scholars at the postdoctoral or early career level, having obtained a PhD no more than five years ago. The closing date is 30 November 2014.
http://psychology-of-religion.com/awards

The Johnny Sutton Neuropsychology Student Travel Bursary is a £500 prize open to students interested in encephalitis. Deadline 1 October.
tinyurl.com/pp77d5w

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