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The BRAIN Like You've Never Seen It Before!

A new video series, "Mysteries of the Brain," highlights NSF-funded brain research.

The most mysterious biological organ in the universe is located right between your ears: your brain -- a non-stop multitasking marvel.  Your brain controls your thinking, voluntary behaviors, and critical aspects of your physiology, such as breathing.

Although brain research has advanced in recent years, no one has yet cracked the code of healthy brain function. An improved understanding of the healthy brain may open new avenues for treating traumatic brain injuries and brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

That’s why the National Science Foundation (NSF) -- the only Federal agency that funds basic research across almost all science and engineering fields -- supports basic research on how healthy brains work.  NSF is also one of the five Federal agencies supporting The BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, an initiative launched by President Obama in 2013 that aims to develop and apply technologies to help revolutionize our understanding of the human brain.

Advanced technologies and techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), bionic limbs, and laser eye surgery were all initially grounded NSF-funded basic research. Basic research on the healthy brain could lead to equally profound advances.

NSF-funded brain research comes to life in a new video series -- “Mysteries of the Brain” -- produced by NBC Learn in partnership with NSF. “Mysteries of the Brain” uses special effects, simulations, interviews, and animations to show, not just tell, what we know about how the brain works in various species, including humans, and the creative techniques being used by cutting-edge brain researchers to learn more. 

NSF-funded brain research

“Mysteries of the Brain” is just one of NSF’s many activities involving brain science. In FY 2015, NSF is awarding over $100 million for research across a range of neuroscience and cognitive science topics.

Researchers are using this funding to invent new probes to monitor and manipulate the brain; build computer models to help reveal the activities of neurons that drive thoughts and behavior; improve brain imaging technologies; and study the nervous systems of varied species.

In addition, NSF-funded researchers are creating a cyberinfrastructure to store and manage the "big data” generated by brain studies.  (For some perspective on the “big data” created by brain studies, consider that if nanoscale images of one human brain were stored in a stack of 1 terabyte hard drives, the stack would reach to the moon, or beyond!)

NSF and the BRAIN Initiative

NSF has been advancing the BRAIN Initiative through varied multi-disciplinary activities:

  • NSF created a $25 million NSF Center for Brains, Minds & Machines at MIT in 2013 for investigating human intelligence and the potential for creating intelligent machines. As researchers learn how to build those machines, they will likely also advance humanity's understanding of human intelligence.
  • NSF awarded 36 interdisciplinary teams a total of $10.8 million in early concept research grants in 2014 to address this vexing question: How do circuits of neurons generate behaviors and enable learning and perception?
    • One early concept team is improving a new kind of microscope to simultaneously view individual neurons firing in two or more different regions of a brain at the same time. This microscope will enable researchers to see in detail, for the first time, how different areas of the brain work together to process information.
    • Another team aims to document, for the first time, all behaviors and neural activities simultaneously demonstrated by an individual animal (a roundworm) as it matures.  This project should shed light on the parallel development of brain circuits and behavior.
  • Later this month, NSF will convene a workshop aimed at generating sophisticated research projects that will advance our understanding of how the sense of smell works and how the brain processes sensory information.  This workshop is specially designed to inspire new approaches by bringing together researchers from varied disciplines who would otherwise probably not have opportunities to collaborate with one another.
  • On July 9, 2015, NSF will moderate a Capitol Hill briefing that will feature presentations by NSF-funded brain researchers on their recent discoveries.  The briefing will be hosted by Congressman Chaka Fattah.
  • NSF is currently working with other organizations, including the Interagency Working Group on Neuroscience, the Department of Energy and the National Laboratory Network, to assess how to create a National Brain Observatory that will help neuroscientists collect, standardize and analyze data from brain research.
  • NSF is planning to hold an international conference on brain research in fall 2015.

We encourage you to check out all of NSF’s Mysteries of the Brain videos HERE and stay up to speed on how NSF is working to unlock these mysteries HERE.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

James Olds is Assistant Director for the BIO Directorate at the National Science Foundation.