Jodene Fine, MSU assistant professor of counseling educational psychology, and special education, was the first to discover that the brains of children with nonverbal learning disabilities are different than the brains of their peers. (Photo courtesy of MSU College of Education)

By Kathy Barks Hoffman

Teasing out the secrets of the human brain is a fascinating research area for Michigan’s University Research Corridor, where the state’s three major research universities are doing important work mapping the brain, finding ways to fight neurological diseases and developing new technologies to study what’s still largely a mysterious organ.

The importance of brain research was emphasized earlier this year when President Barack Obama in April announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative, or BRAIN, whose goal is to map the human brain and develop new technologies “to show how individual brain cells and complex neural circuits interact at the speed of thought.”

Some of the research projects tied to the BRAIN initiative may have to wait longer for funding than expected because October’s 16-day government shutdown pushed back deadlines for awarding federal grants. But other research already is going forward.

“Wayne State University investigators are engaged in pioneering work in many areas of relevance to the BRAIN initiative, a federal grand challenge envisioned as a partnership among academic institutions, federal granting agencies, companies and philanthropists,” said Hilary Ratner, vice president for research at Wayne State University.

The Detroit-based university recently launched the President’s Research Enhancement Program, which aims to better understand the mechanisms of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and many others; develop solutions to prevent, treat or reverse the harmful effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries in returning war veterans; and reduce language barriers through technological advances in how computers interface with human thought.

“Through this program, our faculty will explore ways that they together can be catalysts for innovation, ultimately to improve the lives of many inflicted with neurological diseases and disorders, as well as create the next generation of leading scientists and high-tech jobs in cutting-edge industries,” Ratner said.

Stephen Hsu, vice president for research and graduate studies at Michigan State University, said the three universities already are conducting many brain-related studies.

“The human brain is arguably the most complex object we know of in the universe. It encodes a compressed, but effective, model of the world around us,” he said.  “In my opinion, probably the best approach to cracking the code that drives our brains will rely on reverse-engineering the one example we got for free from nature: the brain! That requires neuroscience, genomics, and cognitive science.”

Steve Forrest, vice president for research at the University of Michigan, said federal support for brain research is critical if the URC universities are to continue their work. Although the grant deadlines have been pushed back, the $100 million set aside for the BRAIN initiative still is expected to be awarded.

“Understanding the brain presents one of the great frontiers of science. With recent insights and advances in a variety of disciplines, we are now capable of making extraordinary progress in understanding its inner workings and discovering the paths to therapies for a broad spectrum of diseases,” Forrest said. “Federal funding of university research has generated the ideas and developed the talent that has led to stunning advances in medicine over the last several decades, and it will be crucial to the success of this promising field as well.”