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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Marder named to BRAIN Initiative advisory board

Published: April 12, 2013
Section: Front Page, News

President Barack Obama selected Professor and Director of the Division of Science Eve Marder ’69 (NBIO) as a member of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative’s advisory board earlier this month.

Obama unveiled the BRAIN Initiative on April 2, granting $100 million toward research for developing new technologies that may help cure brain disorders. The initiative includes faculty from research universities such as Brandeis.

“A lot of people think that we need technological developments and improvements, computational methods and theory in order to go to the next step,” Marder said. “The hope would be that it [the BRAIN Initiative] would foster a whole new generation of innovative tools that would allow brain scientists around the world to do experiments we wouldn’t imagine possible today.”

Supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget, the initiative seeks to discover new treatments and cures for disorders such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.

Marder claims that the present is a vital and exciting time for neuroscience. She described how revolutionary it was 50 years ago to examine a single electrode in an animal’s brain. Now, technology has advanced, and experiments are conducted with multi-electrodes. According to Marder, it is this kind of technological innovation that will keep neuroscience moving forward and that will help humans better understand the brain.

Professor and Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan Birren (NBIO) said that the BRAIN Initiative will also explore the concept of circuits, which is a special area of focus for Marder.

“The Human Brain Activity Mapping Project will pave the way for exciting advances in our understanding of the brain circuits that control human thought and behavior,” Birren said. “The program will develop new tools that will speed progress on fundamental scientific discoveries in brain function and on human development and neurodegenerative brain disorders.”

Marder agreed. As one of the 14 researchers chosen, Marder believes that she was nominated from several different sources. Her experience on the council of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke as well as her specific area of research gave her an edge, she said.

“I work on circuits, and I’m sure they were looking for people with a basic understanding of what it would mean—to understand how circuits work,” she said.

In his remarks earlier this month, Obama mentioned that the BRAIN Initiative would not only benefit the United States scientifically and medically, but also economically as well. Similar to the Human Genome Project, it is believed that this could also be an initiative to create jobs.

Marder is a staunch believer that this initiative would better equip the United States to compete with other countries as well as to advance health care.

“Americans can be quite innovative anyway,” she said. “Right now, lots of countries such as China and India and countries in Europe have a national investment in science that has not been matched in the United States. Thirty years ago, we were spending much more on science and innovation than probably any place else, but today, many, many countries are ahead of us.”

The advisory board starts brainstorming in May and will work through the middle of 2014 to develop a plan to implement the initiative’s goals, Marder said.

Although Brandeis is one of the smallest universities represented on the advisory board, Marder said it is important to balance a diversity of laboratories from different sized institutions.

“A lot of really important advances in science come from small groups of people at smaller labs,” said Marder. “So I think one of the reasons why I might have been invited is to ensure there is a balance of viewpoints with regard to the advantaging of small laboratory science that fosters independent innovation, as opposed to large top down science.”

Birren argued that Brandeis was a perfect fit for this project.

“Brandeis is in a beautiful position to contribute and provide leadership in this project as our neuroscientists—faculty, postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and undergraduates—are already carrying out cutting edge research on how brain circuits are built, how they function and how those circuits carry out behavior,” she said.