NIH brain research initiative taps computing power to gain insights

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Biomedical research is being transformed by the “explosion in computing power” and a tsunami of big data, says Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Recent advances in computational power have the potential to drive medical breakthroughs and therapeutic discoveries, Collins told the Senate health committee during a hearing on Thursday.

In particular, he pointed to NIH’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, an effort to push the boundaries of neuroscience research and equip scientists with insights necessary for treating a wide variety of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, autism and drug addiction.

“The BRAIN initiative has created new imaging tools that are turning out droves of amazing data,” testified Collins, which is “revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain, the most complex structure in the known universe.”

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The neuroscience data from the initiative will be managed, shared and analyzed to better understand how the brain works, he said, providing insights that will have profound consequences for the prevention or treatment of a wide variety of brain disorders.

“By accelerating the development and application of innovative technologies, researchers are producing a revolutionary new dynamic picture of the brain that, for the first time, shows how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space,” according to Collins. “This picture is filling major gaps in our current knowledge and providing unprecedented opportunities for exploring exactly how the brain enables the human body to record, process, utilize, store and retrieve vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought.”

In 2018, the NIH director noted that the BRAIN Initiative will support several key components including data infrastructure and sharing as well as the development of an atlas of brain cell types.

“In human studies, the BRAIN Initiative is advancing brain imaging and non-invasive brain stimulation, and public-private partnerships are investigating self-adjusting implanted brain stimulation therapies that are already showing promise,” Collins concluded.

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