Scientific Initiatives / Dynamic Brain

It's time to rethink the brain.

Currently, there are few effective therapies for neurologic diseases, birth defects and damage from injury and aging. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Salk scientists have a bold plan to revolutionize neuroscience. We are at the cusp of a revolution in neuroscience. In the past, scientists were limited to studying one neuron at a time—but the nervous system is all about connections. Now, a more sophisticated neuroscience is emerging at the Salk Institute, one capable of explaining how billions of neurons work in unison to allow us to think, feel and move. Salk scientists are pioneering advances such as new imaging technologies, stem cell techniques and the ability to control neuron function with light. At the same time, they are working across traditional boundaries of neuroscience, merging molecular neurobiology, neurophysiology, and computational and behavioral neuroscience. This new, all-encompassing approach is revealing critical details of the nervous system’s molecular and cellular machinery and allowing us to study multiple living neurons simultaneously for the first time in history. Salk scientists are mapping the brain’s circuitry, modeling human disease in the laboratory and exploring the genetic links to cognition and behavior, work that lays the groundwork for prevention and treatment of neurologic diseases and injuries such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, spinal cord damage and blindness.

Dynamic Brain Initiative

Thanks to powerful new technologies and research methods, neuroscientists can now study many neurons and genes simultaneously—a breakthrough that will provide a better understanding of the complex wiring of the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nervous system. Part of the first-ever Campaign for Salk, the Dynamic Brain Initiative is an aggressive plan for preventing and treating neurologic diseases and injuries. Through this initiative, Salk scientists will work toward:

  • Explaining the loss of cognitive and motor function in Alzheimer's and other neurologic diseases
  • Mapping circuits that coordinate movement in order to shape treatments for recovery from spinal cord injuries
  • Understanding how the brain processes visual information, which could lead to treatments for a range of sensory disorders, including prosthetic implants to treat blindness

The Dynamic Brain Initiative will allow Salk scientists to work seamlessly across traditional boundaries, merging molecular neurobiology, neurophysiology and computational and behavioral neuroscience to produce a sophisticated understanding of the brain, from individual genes to neuronal circuits to behavior.

The devastating effects of neurologic disorders are widely recognized, yet government funding for this vital research has declined. Philanthropic support will be essential for continued discovery, and Salk is specifically seeking support for the following four components of the Dynamic Brain Initiative:

By providing seed grants and the leveraging funds necessary to obtain larger grants, the initiative will launch research projects that cross many sub-disciplines.

The endowed fellowship program will encourage interdisciplinary studies on nervous system function and disorders, and will train the next generation of highly effective neuroscientists.

The Institute will recruit outstanding scientists working at the cutting-edge of neuroscience, in areas such as viral and molecular-genetic approaches, light-based techniques for manipulating the activity of neurons and optical imaging of neural activity. These new faculty will integrate our existing areas of expertise and enhance our understanding of the nervous system.

Research technology is advancing rapidly in the neurosciences. Establishing an endowed technology fund will allow us to invest in crucial new equipment to visualize and measure brain function in ways never before imagined.

The Dynamic Brain Initiative has a clearly defined research agenda that will focus on six interconnected aspects of neuroscience:

Salk neuroscientists will explain how the brain controls movement and will help generate treatments for spinal cord injuries and movement disorders, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. They will develop cutting-edge experimental approaches, such as using miniature microscopes to image neurons in live animals and modifying viruses to study motor circuits.

To develop more effective therapies for vision loss, we need a far more detailed understanding of how the brain processes visual information. Decoding the visual system will lead to new therapies for disorders of vision and other sensory systems and will explain how deficits in sensation are connected to autism, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

Using the techniques of stem cell biology and genetically modified mice, Salk scientists have developed powerful new models of autism, schizophrenia and brain cancer. The Dynamic Brain Initiative will greatly expand these disease models and their use in testing potential new drugs for human patients.

To truly understand how the brain operates in both healthy and diseased states, scientists need to map out the brain's neural networks and unravel how they interrelate. Salk researchers are developing new tools and techniques, such as using light to turn cells on and off to see what roles they play in brain function.

Neuroscientists are working to link particular genes to specific functions and behaviors, such as speech, movement and mood. With new technologies, Salk researchers will combine gene- and cell-level studies with behavioral research to understand how genes orchestrate brain functions such as learning and decision-making.

To stave off or reverse diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, scientists need to understand the biochemical and genetic changes that occur in the brain as we age. Salk scientists will explore how the brain changes over time, from the molecular level to functions involving millions of cells, laying the groundwork for prevention and treatment of age-related neurologic diseases.

Fred Gage converted skin cells from schizophrenic patients into neurons that could be studied in the laboratory, avoiding the need to obtain cells from a patient’s brain.

Terrence Sejnowski revealed a connection between two ion channels that, when misaligned, can cause the many symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Sam Pfaff discovered a feature of brain development that helps explain how complex neuron wiring patterns are programmed using just a handful of genes.

Tatyana Sharpee developed methods of using recordings from the natural environment, combined with statistical modeling, to explore information processing in the brain.

Martyn Goulding showed how spinal cord neurons keep one side of the body from getting ahead of the other during locomotion. This removed an obstacle to developing new treatments for spinal cord injuries.

Edward Callaway broadened the understanding of how neural circuits give rise to perception and behavior.

Nicola Allen uncovered more insight into the functionality of astrocytes, mysterious but prolific brain cells that influence synapses and may have implications in development disorders, like autism.