Can we reverse-engineer the brain?

Michael Roukes, Robert M. Abbey Professor of Physics, Applied Physics, & Bioengineering, Caltech

Although our understanding of the properties of individual neurons and their role in brain computations has advanced significantly over the past several decades, we are still far from elucidating how complex assemblies of neurons – that is, brain circuits – interact to process information. In 2011, six U.S. scientists from different disciplines banded together, outlined a vision [1,2], and managed to convince the Obama administration of the unprecedented opportunity that exists to launch a coordinated, large-scale international effort to map brain activity. This culminated in the U.S. BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), which was launched in 2013. Our perspective was predicated, in part, on the current level of maturity of diverse fields of nanotechnology and silicon very-large-scale integration (VLSI) that can now be coalesced to create unprecedented tools for massively parallel interrogation of brain activity. We will outline the immense complexity of such pursuits, the hopes we articulated, survey the existing technological landscape for assembling the requisite instrumentation, and then focus upon our own collaborative efforts toward tools enabling multi-physical interrogation of brain activity. We believe this technology will engender a spectrum of new possibilities for neuroscience and clinical neuromedicine.

[1] Alivisatos A.P., Chun M., Church G.M., Greenspan R.J., Roukes M.L., Yuste R., The Brain Activity Map project and the challenge of functional connectomics. Neuron 74, 970-974 (2012).

[2] Alivisatos A.P., Chun M., Church G.M., Greenspan R.J., Roukes M.L., Yuste R., A National Network of Neurotechnology Centers for the BRAIN Initiative. Neuron 88, 445-448 (2015).