People deem outer space and the ocean depths as mysterious territories we have yet to fully understand, but the scientific community may know even less about the human brain, another frontier that's ripe for advanced research.
This year, multiple international organizations are joining forces to study the most powerful and elusive part of the human body.
On Feb. 20, 2014, neuroscientist Joshua Sanes addressed colleagues at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute about the federal government's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Neuroscience pioneers involved in the $1 billion project plan to develop technology to image and control the brain. They hope to unlock clues to neurological and psychiatric disorders that currently lack effective treatment.
Sanes told listeners at Virginia Tech that the world was on the cusp of a social and scientific breakthrough.
"We are at the threshold of a revolution that is helping us understand what our brain is, and therefore, who we are, in a way that has just truly been unimaginable up until now," he said.
President Obama suggested in his 2013 State of the Union address that sophisticated brain research could lead to a cure for Alzheimer's, autism and reverse stroke effects. Shortly thereafter, his administration began investing in the BRAIN Initiative. The National Institutes of Health, DARPA, and the National Science Foundation led its development and recruited Sanes to be a member of the advisory board along with other neuroscientists.
Sanes and his colleagues are currently building a report to supply to Congress this year to gain funding to develop imaging technology to continue the initiative, and they're getting help.
Scientific American announced this year that the Initiative was partnering with other brain research organizations, including the European Union's Human Brain Project, to approach the problem in a coordinated and sophisticated manner from multiple fronts. The Human Brain Project's backers in the European Commission plan to create the world's most sophisticated computational brain model, which will complement the BRAIN Initiative's efforts to fully understand how the brain works.
Research from the Human Brain Project will allow engineers to develop supercomputers called neuromorphic computers that operate in a similar fashion to the human brain, which could transform how the world develops electronics. But, like America's BRAIN Initiative, the project also hopes to yield insights into problematic brain diseases and their possible treatments.
Sanes explained the importance of these efforts in his Virginia Tech speech.
"It's not only the major challenge of neuroscience for the next 50 years," he said. "It's probably the major intellectual challenge that faces humanity."