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Neuroscientist Terry Sejnowksi attends White House announcement of collaborative BRAIN Initiative

President Barack Obama greets Terry Sejnowski

President Barack Obama greets Terry Sejnowski at the White House.

This past April, President Obama launched the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. One of the initiative's scientific leaders is the Salk's own Terry Sejnowski, who joined the president for the official announcement at the White House.

According to Sejnowski, despite reports in the popular press that the intent of the initiative is to map the entire human brain, its real goal is much more fundamental and practical. "We are at a point where we can develop the tools to map entire circuits, first in invertebrates and eventually in mammals," he says. "This is the start of the million neuron march."

Sejnowski says BRAIN could ultimately help reduce the overwhelming costs for treatment and long-term care of brain-related disorders, which Price Waterhouse Coopers estimated at $515 billion for the United States alone in 2012.

"Many of the most devastating human brain disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia, only seem to emerge when large-scale assemblies of neurons are involved," says Sejnowski. "Other terrible conditions, such as blindness and paralysis, result from disruptions in circuit connections. The more precise our information about specific circuits, the more we will understand what went wrong, where it went wrong, and how to target therapies."

BRAIN's focus on tool development dovetails with Salk's Dynamic Brain Initiative, which is also extending the boundaries of knowledge of the brain, spinal cord and peripheral nervous system. Salk is home to several pioneering tool builders, among them Edward M. Callaway, who modified a rabies virus to trace neuronal connections in the visual system, and Axel Nimmerjahn, who has invented tiny, wearable microscopes to see into the brains of laboratory mice.

Summing up his excitement over the promise of BRAIN, Sejnowski says, "Imagine how it must have felt to be a rocket engineer when Kennedy said we would reach for the moon. You know there's an almost unimaginable amount of hard work ahead of you—and yet you can't wait to get started."