News

CMU launches global brain research initiative

University President Subra Suresh spoke about Carnegie Mellon’s plan to work across disciplines and across the world to better understand the human brain.  (credit: Abhinav Gautam/) University President Subra Suresh spoke about Carnegie Mellon’s plan to work across disciplines and across the world to better understand the human brain. (credit: Abhinav Gautam/) Tom Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, spoke about BrainHub, Carnegie Mellon’s newly announced brain research initiative.  (credit: Abhinav Gautam/) Tom Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, spoke about BrainHub, Carnegie Mellon’s newly announced brain research initiative. (credit: Abhinav Gautam/) When the university announced its brain research initiative, university President Subra Suresh and several leading brain researchers spoke to a varied audience in the Jared L. Cohon University Center’s Rangos Hall.  (credit: Abhinav Gautam/) When the university announced its brain research initiative, university President Subra Suresh and several leading brain researchers spoke to a varied audience in the Jared L. Cohon University Center’s Rangos Hall. (credit: Abhinav Gautam/)

Carnegie Mellon is looking to find out how the brain affects human behavior through its latest initiative, BrainHub.

On Aug. 26, the university announced the launch of BrainHub during a discussion with faculty and research partners. The university stated in a press release that it will work with a variety of home and international partners to create tools to study how the brain and human behavior are linked.

The initiative aims to bring insight into a variety of areas related to the brain, including cognition, learning and perception, and brain disorders like Parkinson’s disease, according to the release.

“As an initiative, [BrainHub] seeks to link people who are connected with different parts of campus who may or may not in some cases have been previously engaged in research related to neuroscience, brain science — to try and bring their expertise to bear on questions that are relevant to brain function,” said Nathan Urban, interim provost and Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz distinguished professor of life sciences.

For example, a person interested in engineering may be applying a data analysis process in an electrical engineering context, but may be able to apply that process to answer questions about the brain, Urban said.

Key first steps of the initiative will be to develop better tools for recording neuron activity and properties, as well as computational tools and approaches for better analyzing and understanding the link between what the brain is doing at a specific time as it yields various behaviors, according to the release.

“The belief is that there are people at Carnegie Mellon who have developed these kinds of technologies in one application area, and we want to understand how they can be leveraged in another application area,” Urban said.

As part of the initiative, Carnegie Mellon said university deans plan to recruit 10 or more new faculty members specializing in the brain sciences in various departments and “establish new sources of ongoing support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows,” according to the release.

To jumpstart the new initiative, Carnegie Mellon has secured $75 million of initial commitments over the next five years from various funders, including the Hillman Foundation, RK Mellon Foundation, Dietrich Foundation, and Kris Gopalakrishnan, the co-founder of business consulting company Infosys, among others.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation also represent a large portion of the funding, according to Urban.

Notable partnerships for the BrainHub initiative include Sun Yat-sen Univesrity in Guangzhou, China for its work with Alzheimer’s and autism, the University of Warwick in Coventry, England for its specialty in digital health, Oxford University’s International Brain Mechanics and Trauma Lab and the Indian Institute of Science, which has a brain institute initiative of its own, according to the Carnegie Mellon release. Carnegie Mellon will also work with long-time collaborators at the University of Pittsburgh.

In 2011, Carnegie Mellon partnered with Sun-Yat-sen University to create a joint graduate and engineering program, the Joint Institute of Engineering in China. Carnegie Mellon and Sun Yat-sen celebrated the launch of the program in late 2012. In July, Carnegie Mellon signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Warwick for a $10 million collaboration in data collection, analysis, and processing.

Urban said the short-term goals of the partnerships are to identify common areas of interest to develop further.

“There was a strong desire to have mechanisms for establishing these kinds of [connections among universities] and creating these kinds of joint projects, and we want to let the faculty who are engaged in this, drive that in terms of what directions they take,” Urban said.

Carnegie Mellon’s move to create new tools and methods to further study the brain is part of a larger trend of university research regarding the brain. In April 2013, President Barack Obama unveiled the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a government initiative to better understand the mind and uncover new ways to cure, prevent, and treat brain disorders.

As part of the initiative, the government said it would provide approximately $100 million in investments through various government organizations for scientists to acquire needed tools for research.
In response to the initiative, many universities have begun their own brain research initiatives.

For example, the University of California, San Diego in May 2013 introduced the Center for Brain Activity Mapping to develop new tools for recording the activities of neurons in the brain and to conduct brain-mapping experiments. In June, the state of California provided $2 million in funding from its $156 million 2014-15 state budget to jumpstart the university’s research in brain-mapping. The funding was California’s first allocation from a statewide research grant program known as the California Blueprint for Research to Advance Innovations in Neuroscience (Cal-BRAIN). Cal-BRAIN is a direct response by the state of California to President Obama’s initiative.

Urban said that Carnegie Mellon’s BrainHub initiative is unique from other university initiatives because of Carnegie Mellon’s international partnerships and its focus on drawing upon people in various disciplines.

“There’s a lot of focus for us in trying to bring in people who are from, say, computer science or engineering into the fold. We really think ... there’s a lot of opportunity for pushing the field forward rapidly by bringing new approaches, new technologies, [and] new tools to bear, Urban said.