By Jody Berger
The Stanford Neurosciences Institute is elevating three research programs to become the flagship Big Ideas collaborations focusing on brain rejuvenation, neurotechnology and decision-making.
For anyone who ever dreamed of growing younger, or at least wished they could stop getting older, the Stanford Neurosciences Institute has a team of researchers on the case for you.
The Brain Rejuvenation Project is just one of three ambitious projects that could change the way we understand and use our brains in relationship to our world.
All three projects came in response to the Institute’s call for Big Ideas three years ago.
At the time, Tony Wyss-Coray, professor of neurology, and Aaron Gitler, associate professor of genetics, wanted to know if the effects of aging could be slowed or even reversed. In pursuit of their audacious goal, they assembled a team of experts in cell biology, biochemistry, engineering and clinical care and wrote a proposal to study proteins in the blood that cause the brain to deteriorate or repair itself.
The Brain Rejuvenation Project was one of seven projects supported in the initial round of Big Ideas funding. And now, after two years of research, Wyss-Coray and Gitler’s team was one of three high impact projects selected for continued support for an additional five years.
The Stanford Neurotechnology Initiative and NeuroChoice were also chosen to advance to the second phase of funding. The Neurotechnology Initiative aims to develop neural interfaces that perform as well as the original biology. NeuroChoice seeks to understand how decisions are made inside the brain, by individuals, and by groups of individuals, to learn more about substance abuse and the policies created to control it. The three groups all bring together teams of up to twenty faculty from medicine, engineering, the basic sciences, and law.
“All three projects are extremely ambitious,” said William Newsome, Director of the Neurosciences Institute, who led the ten-person committee that evaluated proposals.
“I talked personally to every member of the review committee and said, ‘Don’t concentrate on whether it’s possible,’” Newsome said. “Focus on whether it’s a big idea that could make a big difference. Is it an interdisciplinary team? And has that team shown signs of getting traction during the initial round of funding? All three of these pass. And I wish I could fund a couple more.”
Individually, Gitler studies genetic risk factors for age-related diseases and Wyss-Coray studies how aging works and how factors in young animals could have regenerative capacity in older animals. Together with an interdisciplinary team including Anne Brunet, a professor of genetics, and Carlolyn Bertozzi, a professor of chemistry, they are focusing their efforts on discovering proteins in blood that cause neurodegenerative diseases and developing innovative therapeutic strategies that could lead to rejuvenation.
“Our big idea is that there are factors in the blood that promote brain rejuvenation,” Gitler said. “We can identify and understand how they work. We can leverage those discoveries to understand how defects in those factors contribute to neurodegeneration and how boosting them can meliorate brain function.”
When neuroscientists think about helping blind, deaf or paralyzed patients, they often considering creating a device that could communicate with the patient’s brain. And generally, the neuroscientist needs someone else to build the device.
The NeuroTechnology Initiative is determined to break down the barriers between different areas of expertise to allow leaders in neurosurgery, ophthalmology and neurology to work from the beginning with their peers in electrical engineering, computer science and chemistry. Led by Nick Melosh, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, and E.J. Chichilnisky, a professor in neurosurgery, the interdisciplinary team plans to create new neural interfaces that will treat a wide range of diseases.
To create any neural interface—a device that can interact with the brain—the team needs to measure the brain’s electrical output. The NeuroTechnology Initiative will improve current technology that is only capable of measuring output from a few hundred neurons at a time.
“We’re going from a scale of a hundred or a thousand to tens of thousands of neurons to provide higher quality and a better sense of the entire circuit,” Melosh said. “This is going to give new information because it’s so much larger scale. We might be able to correlate activity at the different parts of the circuit (within the brain).”
The Initiative will also study visual processing in the retina to learn how to electrically stimulate individual cells, in a specific order, to create artificial vision that offers the same clarity as natural vision.
Substance abuse and addiction is a $700 billion-dollar problem in the U.S. in terms of costs related to crime, lost work productivity, and health care.
To tackle a problem so large, the NeuroChoice team attacks it on three levels at once. On the smallest scale, the members of this interdisciplinary team study how brain circuits make choices related to addiction. Simultaneously, they look one level up to learn how individuals make choices and finally, at the grandest scale, they study the way groups of individuals make choices regarding substance abuse.
Brian Knutson is a professor of psychology; Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry; and Rob Malenka is a professor of psychiatry. Together, they will lead the research that could transform both the scientific understanding of addiction and the policies created to curb it.
As the teams of researchers pursue each “Big Idea,” they will also report back to the Institute executive committee. If the teams continue to make progress on their ideas, they will continue to receive funding and support.
As ambitious as these three project may sound, they are not the sum total of the Neurosciences Institute’s research agenda. They are not even the sum total of the Big Ideas program.
“Our goal is to incentivize cross-disciplinary teams working on important neuroscience research and to keep the program alive and changing year after year,” Newsome said. “We hope to offer another round of Phase I funding next year.”
For anyone with a dream as bold as reversing the aging process, building replacement body parts that work as well as the original, or solving problems of addiction, next year may be the year to get started.