Mason’s Krasnow Institute Joins BRAIN Initiative

Posted: April 5, 2013 at 5:01 am, Last Updated: April 17, 2013 at 6:47 am

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By Michele McDonald

James Olds, director of the Krasnow Institute. Creative Services photo

James Olds, director of the Krasnow Institute. Creative Services photo

Researchers at George Mason University’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study will be navigating the inner workings of the brain as part of the White House’s new BRAIN Initiative.

The White House unveiled plans this month for its Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies or BRAIN Initiative and has slated $100 million from the 2014 fiscal budget to fund the first year.

Turning 20 years old this year, Krasnow investigates neuroscience but also delves into physics, engineering, computer science, economics, psychology and anthropology, among other disciplines. Its multidisciplinary approach helps Krasnow researchers find innovative solutions.

“Krasnow is one of America’s unique treasures,” says James L. Olds, Krasnow’s director. “It was co-founded by two Nobel laureates (Murray Gell-Mann and Herbert A. Simon) with a vision. The goal is to produce consequential findings about the mechanisms of human cognition. What we do here is high risk, high payoff.”

In the next decade, brain mapping could bring such a payoff by providing improved treatments and a greater understanding of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder and blindness.

Krasnow’s $1.8 million research imaging center, which houses a massive magnetic resonance imager, will be invaluable to the brain-mapping project.

Krasnow’s magnetic resonance imager will be invaluable to the brain-mapping project. Creative Services photo

For example, neuroscientists use beams of light to turn on and off neurons and could apply this approach to give sight to people who are blind, Olds says. “Their glasses would have a laser in them. The laser would turn on the proper neurons and replace their sight,” he says.

Other diseases could be ameliorated. “We hope to make a difference, even in something like Alzheimer’s disease, which right now is a death sentence,” Olds says. “Think of how AIDS used to be a death sentence and now is manageable. Imagine Alzheimer’s being manageable in some way. That would really be a magnificent achievement — not only for patients, but it would be positive for the economy too.”

Krasnow’s $1.8 million research imaging center, which houses a massive magnetic resonance imager, will be invaluable to the brain-mapping project. While the White House has thrown its considerable weight behind neuroscience, Krasnow and other notable institutions such as the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Howard Hughes Medical Institute with its Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Va., Kavli Foundation and Salk Institute for Biological Studies are already at work.

“We can expect to achieve the ‘wiring diagram’ of a cubic millimeter of mouse cerebral cortex in the next couple of years,” says Olds, adding that the mouse brain is similar to the human brain.

Mason students can expect to play a role in the BRAIN Initiative.

“Krasnow has a lot of advantages over its sister stand-alone institutes,” Olds says. “It has a large and diverse university community where students are directly embedded in the give and take of high-intensity research. That’s typically not the case at all. You walk around this institute and there are students everywhere. Having students as a ubiquitous presence makes for an enriched education and, frankly, greatly enhances research productivity.”

The BRAIN project could find a way to build more power into increasingly smaller devices. Computer chips are in danger of literally melting, as anyone who’s had a hot laptop on their lap knows.

“We need to start looking at more powerful computers like our brains, which basically use the power of a 20-watt light bulb to run all the computations,” Olds says. “There’s something very efficient about our brains that could be practically reverse-engineered into our machines.”

Other new applications could follow, creating an economic boon. “Basically, as we learn more about the brain we’ll be able to comprehend how the brain is put together and use that knowledge to actually build better machines and improve our national competitiveness,” Olds says.

While other nations — China, Korea, Singapore and Europe — also are doing brain research, the United States has an advantage because of its tradition of “bottom-up, investigator-initiated” research. And Krasnow is in an even better spot because, unlike many other institutes, it’s part of a university and draws deep into other disciplines, Olds says.

Krasnow curates the world’s largest database of three-dimensionally reconstructed neurons at its 60,000-square-foot facility, Olds says, pointing to a sculpture representing actual neurons. Giorgio Ascoli, University Professor in the Molecular Neuroscience Department, created the database.

Neuroscience puts Olds on the road — he’s been to Singapore, Helsinki, Japan, Seoul and Beijing in the last year. “Neuroscience is an international effort,” he says.

But it’s all in a day’s work at Krasnow. “It’s the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had in my life,” Olds says.

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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