Like the $100 million BRAIN Initiative which she co-chairs, Cori Bargmann’s interests span all levels, from the simplest neuronal structures to the most complex structure of all, the human brain. And interestingly, in the cases of both the BRAIN Initiative and Cori Bargmann, Ph.D., every level of complexity is important and every level contributes to the understanding of the whole.
The “whole” in the case of the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) is complex indeed. Announced by President Obama on April 2, 2013, it aims to “revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.” To grasp the complexity of this goal, keep in mind that when studying a single human brain, researchers are dealing with a structure laced together with 10 billion neurons, 100,000 miles of biological wiring, and 100 trillion synapses.
At 52 Dr. Bargmann, who co-chairs the project along with Stanford’s William Newsome, is well-qualified for the job, having spent her adult life as a star in the neuroscience field. She received her doctorate from MIT and now heads a laboratory at Rockefeller University. Her career has been littered with prizes including, most recently, sharing the million dollar Kavli Prize in Neuroscience in 2012 and, this year, the $3 million Breakthrough Prize for her studies on the relationships between genes, the nervous system, and behaviors in the roundworm C. elegans.
C. elegans, one of the simpler animals to study, has only 302 neurons and 8,000 synapses, but its very simplicity makes it a powerful model for the analysis of neural circuits. Her work with C. elegans provided the first evidence for the detailed neuronal pathway between a specific olfactory receptor protein and behavior. Further, her lab has identified genes and neural pathways for C. elegans actions that determine how sensory inputs regulate these circuits. These fundamental principles of neural circuit logic also apply to mammals.
The scope of C. elegans circuitry may be relatively simple, but when the President appointed Dr. Bargmann as co-chair of the BRAIN Initiative, the job included an extraordinarily broad and complex portfolio of objectives:
- Help solve important economic and societal problems including brain diseases such as depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and schizophrenia;
- Serve as a “North Star” for high-impact, multi-disciplinary collaborations among government, industry, universities, nonprofits, and philanthropists;
- Create a foundation for industries and jobs of the future;
- Capture public imagination and increase support for public policies that foster science, technology, and innovation; and
- Inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs
But how to accomplish all this? “The announcement,” she said in a recent interview, “left some of us scratching our heads, trying to figure out how it would all fit together.”