Business Forum: International Brain Initiative bodes well for bio-optics

The Canberra Declaration to create the Initiative promises to further heighten the profile of brain research—and biophotonics tools that enable it.

SUSAN REISS, Contributing Editor, BioOptics World

Since the 2013 launch of the U.S. Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, biophotonics advances have facilitated discovery involving the brain itself and brain disease processes. These efforts complement other large-scale research efforts occurring globally. In December 2017, representatives from Australia, Japan, Korea, the European Union, and the U.S. signed the Canberra Declaration to create the International Brain Initiative (IBI). To understand the impact of this agreement, I connected with Caroline Montojo, Ph.D., Science Program Officer and Director, Brain Initiatives at The Kavli Foundation, which has organized meetings over the past two years to help coordinate brain research efforts. The agreement promises to further heighten the profile of brain research—and biophotonics tools that enable it.

BioOptics World:How meaningful is the Canberra Declaration?

Caroline Montojo: The recent Declara­tion of Intent to create an International Brain Initiative is a significant step for moving brain research forward. Over the last several years, major brain projects have been established or are emerging all over the world. But the effort to understand the brain is so large and complex that even with these unprecedented investments in research, no single country’s brain initiative will be able to unravel how the brain works. We need a way for the global neuroscience community to coordinate and work together more effectively on key challenges—the Declaration of Intent represents an international commitment to do just that. It reflects the recognition that it takes the world to understand the brain.

BOW:Why is it important to create an international alliance for brain research?

CM: There are many scientific and technical challenges that are common to all of the major brain projects. For example, neuroscience faces major challenges around data: How do we deal with storing and accessing unprecedented volumes of data? How do we share data? How do we analyze and meaningfully interpret these huge quantities of complex data? Another important and common challenge for the major brain projects is neuroethics—it is critical to address the societal and ethical implications of emerging neuroscience and neurotechnologies. Rather than tackling common challenges like these separately and redundantly, countries can find productive and efficient paths forward together.

BOW:How will international coordination advance U.S. brain research?

CM: There are individual strengths and complementary aspects of each of the major global brain projects. For example, the U.S. BRAIN Initiative has funded the development of many new tools and technologies to better understand the brain, whereas the E.U. Human Brain Project has focused on developing the scientific research infrastructure that will allow us to simulate and model the brain. These aims are very complementary, and better global coordination will increase the impact of neuroscience advances from all countries: A rising tide lifts all boats.

BOW:What is The Kavli Foundation’s role in the effort?

CM: As part of our ongoing support of basic neuroscience research globally, The Kavli Foundation has facilitated a series of meetings aimed at coordinating among the various international brain projects, including the U.S. BRAIN Initiative. We partnered with the U.S. National Science Foundation to convene the Global Brain Workshop in April 2016 at Johns Hopkins University’s Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute. This served as the foundation to develop grand challenge ideas for the September 2016 Rockefeller Global Brain Projects conference and the U.N. General Assembly High-level dialogue. We continued to convene meetings with international brain project leaders throughout 2017 and provided support for the first working group for the International Brain Initiative, which aims to create a systematic and comprehensive inventory of global brain projects. In 2018, with the Declaration of Intent and the participation of countries throughout the world, The Kavli Foundation continues to convene and facilitate dialogue to develop the International Brain Initiative.

BOW:Has the initial buzz around brain research cooled a bit? And does this declaration begin a new phase of development? What results can we anticipate?

CM: On the contrary, I would argue that there has been a boom in the new tools and findings in brain research. Since the establishment of the U.S. BRAIN Initiative in 2013, there have been over 300 publications from NIH-funded BRAIN scientists alone. This doesn’t even touch upon the advances taking place across all of the major brain projects worldwide. What the neuroscience research community can improve on is public engagement in neuroscience. We need to show the world that these exciting new discoveries and tools are emerging rapidly, and that there are many more advances in our understanding still to come in the future.

The declaration brings a new phase in collective efforts to discover how the brain works. This type of global collaboration and priority-setting among large-scale brain projects hasn’t happened before for the neuroscience field. In the fields of astronomy and physics, many activities are internationally coordinated, but this marks the first time that neuroscience is taking a major step in this direction. Understanding the complexity of the brain requires the collective effort of researchers around the globe.

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