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September 04, 2014

Lifting the Burden of Brain Disorders

Understanding how the brain works is one of the toughest puzzles left to solve. And it can’t happen soon enough. Consider these facts:

If you’re lucky enough to reach age 85, you have a 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Sixteen million Americans per year are known to suffer major depression. One in 68 U.S. children annually are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.Brain Behavior photo

That’s just some of the human cost of not understanding how the brain works. The economic costs are also staggering. Addiction, alcoholism, mental illnesses, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s cost the U.S. $1.1 trillion annually. The global price tag? Five trillion dollars.

To help stem the epidemic, Carnegie 
Mellon has launched BrainHubSM, a global research initiative that will bring together CMU’s strengths in computer science, neuroscience, psychology and engineering.

The initiative aims to help develop a better understanding of the brain’s structure and function — why we do the things we do — and to create new tools to accelerate discovery and reduce the burden of brain disorders.

“This is the right time, and this is the right place,” Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, said during his keynote address at the program launch. “I think weʼve found that sweet spot — it doesn't happen all that often — between the world of academics and the world of public policy, and hopefully the world of financing.”

CMU’s BrainHub partners include Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China; the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore; Oxford University and the University of Warwick in the U.K.; and the University of Pittsburgh.

As part of the launch event, CMU faculty members Alison Barth, Marlene Behrmann and Tom Mitchell participated in a panel discussion.

Mitchell, the E. Fredkin University Professor and head of the Machine Learning Department who has conducted research on how the brain processes language, said brain science is data-starved. He said new algorithms are needed that can combine results from diverse brain studies to create databases large enough to begin to answer fundamental questions about something as complex as the brain.

Behrmann, the George A. and Helen Dunham Cowan Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and co-director of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, said new high-resolution imaging technology is needed to allow scientists to study the brain of an infant and continue as it gradually develops. She also called for non-invasive mobile imaging technology to allow subjects to be studied in normal, everyday circumstances.

Barth, professor of biological sciences, predicted that in the future biology would help scientists to identify and map every cell, every synapse and every connection in the brain, giving researchers more fundamental information to build upon.

Insel said the brain is — without question — the topic of the decade. He noted that the future of the National Institutes of Health’s BRAIN initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) relies on bringing together the physical sciences, engineering, psychology, computer science and mathematical sciences with neuroscience.

Moving forward, CMU BrainHub will focus on several key areas of research: designing new tools to measure and connect brain function and behavior; creating tools to build brain-related data sets as well as tools to integrate and analyze those large-scale data sets; and developing new methods for treating neurological disorders and training the brain to improve its performance.

Over the next five years, the research will be supported by private, public and internal commitments totaling about 
$75 million.

By: Piper Staff