Neural Engineers Convene for NIH BRAIN Initiative Meeting

by Jo Jo Platt, senior contributing editor

June 2023 issue

The National Institutes of Health held the 9th Annual BRAIN Initiative Meeting in Bethesda, MD earlier this month. The hybrid meeting was the first to welcome in-person attendance since before the pandemic. Eager researchers and enthusiasts alike grabbed the limited number of spots for in person attendance causing the organizers to put people on a waiting list while they arranged for additional space at the meeting site. With in-person registrations hitting the 1,000-mark, online attendance saw equally robust numbers last reported at about 1,500 registrants. People are clearly eager to get back together to share science, technology, and human interaction. While the brain may be encapsulated and hard to reach, our community is not.

The two-day conference was indeed well attended and did not disappoint in terms of quantity, quality, and veracity of content and presenters. There were hundreds of posters throughout the event as well as over a dozen concurrent sessions and three plenary presentations.

The meeting launched with John Ngai’s update on the state of the union of the BRAIN Initiative and focused on accomplishments as well as critical topics affecting the future of this area of research. One such area is ethics. The organizers underscored their commitment to the topic by inviting Nita Farahany, professor of law at Duke University and author of The Battle for Your Brain as the opening keynote speaker. Farahany, a highly regarded ethicist, was able to move beyond her regular talk that is geared toward a more lay audience and to address issues of ethics, privacy, and security in an in-depth manner catering to the technical acuity of the assembled audience.

Farahany spoke at length about the potential and possible problems of capturing, recording, storing, and other uses of various levels of brain data. The discourse applauded the collective power for good of scientific endeavors and even some commercial applications while simultaneously sounding the alarm to alert users and creators of neurological recording devices about potential misuse and abuse of such practices—some already underway in the global workforce. The presentation offered an adapted and tailored discussion of topics facing the neurotechnology field and humanity at large.

The second of three plenary sessions was delivered by Sameer Sheth, a neurosurgeon and professor at Baylor College of Medicine. His work has focused primarily on deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy but he has more recently applied his learning and expertise to neuropsychiatric disorders. Sheth opined that personalization techniques in DBS for movement disorders and epilepsy can be applied to psychiatric conditions in order to optimize treatments. Through advanced imaging techniques, electrophysiology, and machine learning, Sheth believes that significant advances in understanding these disorders can and will be made and that personalization of treatments is possible as our understanding of the neurophysiological bases grows and is refined.

Vanessa Ruta, professor at The Rockefeller University/HHMI gave the final plenary of the meeting. Ruta has long been recognized as an expert in neural circuitry and in her talk she explored the interplay of individual experience and evolutionary selection. Using a drosophila model, her lab explores ways in which instinct and learning differ and how each is displayed behaviorally. She further examines how the flies mediate fixed and flexible behavior at the synaptic, cellular, and circuit levels.

According to program officers, hundreds of session proposals vied for 13 coveted spots ultimately going to 36 presenters with topics ranging from cellular atlasing and analysis of human and non-human primate brains to examinations of octopus brains to discussions of the future of translational neuroscience and beyond. Concurrent tracks kept a dense meeting brief in duration but inevitably led attendees to prioritize one relevant session over another. Fortunately, the sessions will be made available in the coming weeks for viewing online.