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A Catalyst for Global Connections: Science without Barriers or Borders

Robert Campbell, Ph.D. and Yi (Eason) Shen, Ph.D.

Brain Canada’s vision of science without barriers or borders is promoting global thought and connections. Innovation does not hold a passport or recognize frontiers. Science knows no nation. The understanding of the brain, in health and in illness, requires knowledge, expertise, and resources that do not exist in one place. It benefits from an international focus.

This focus is advanced by the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. The White House BRAIN Initiative is a collaborative, public-private research enterprise announced by President Barack Obama on April 2, 2013. Its aim is to fund the invention of new techniques to revolutionize our understanding of the brain as one interconnected system. In the spirit of fostering innovation, the BRAIN steering committee proposes collaborations that cut across neuroscience, engineering, physics, genetics, mathematics, medicine, and chemistry.

Brain Canada has partnered with the 10 National Institutes of Health (NIH) that form the BRAIN Initiative, to support the involvement of Canadian researchers. In so doing, Brain Canada was one of the BRAIN Initiative’s first international partners. Both NIH and Brain Canada believe that the ambitious goals of the BRAIN Initiative can best be attained by collaboration across disciplinary and geographic boundaries.

The Neuronal Mechanisms of Human Episodic Memory project, led by Dr. Taufik Valiante at the University Health Network, is a product of this collaboration. It led toDr. Valiante receiving a $1,033,182 Brain Canada/NIH grant in 2017.

Taufik Valiante, M.D., Ph.D.

“The project aims to significantly advance the mechanistic understanding of how human memory works by moving beyond a ‘parts list’ of neurons and brain areas,” says Dr. Valiante. Memories inform decisions and are essential for human cognition. Yet, their underlying neural mechanisms remain poorly understood. Dr. Valiante’s objective is to assemble a team to test predictions on the neural substrate of human memory. The approach allows the investigation of circuit-level mechanisms of human memory.

By participating in a consortium, the team can pool data and multidisciplinary experience across multiple centres for the same experimental tasks and recording methods. The consortium of investigators collects data sets of a size and quality that are difficult to achieve in an individual, isolated lab. For Dr. Valiante, “The amount and quality of data we will acquire allows us to directly address key scientific hypotheses using sophisticated analysis, which is only possible with a large, high-quality data set. Such studies pose a unique opportunity to answer questions related to the neuronal mechanisms involved in human cognitive processing.”

One of the major challenges facing the BRAIN initiative is the development of technologies that will enable the recording of neural activity throughout the rodent brain. Optical imaging approaches for the recording of neural activity in model organisms have already proven to be highly effective, but are generally limited to imaging of activity near the brain surface. Robert Campbell at the University of Alberta has embraced the challenge. Dr. Campbell is a chemist who uses protein engineering to invent new tools for imaging dynamic biochemical events in live cells and tissues. The tools created in his lab are then distributed to cell biologists and neuroscientists who apply them to address questions ranging from fundamental mechanisms in cell biology, to the underlying causes of mental illness, to the development of novel therapeutics. He received a Brain Canada/NIH grant in 2015 to develop a probe that can convert the electro-chemical activity of neurons into signals that can be easily visualized, even when those neurons are deep in the brain.

“The Brain Canada/NIH grant was critical for enabling my lab to develop the first genetically encoded near-infrared Ca2+ biosensor for neural activity imaging. This new biosensor opens the door to high-resolution imaging of neural activity deep within the brains of rodent models of human brain disorders.” Results from this project were published in the February 2019 edition of Nature Methods.
Brain Canada’s partnership with NIH is not limited to North America. In addition to providing funding, Brain Canada is part of the BRAIN Multi-Council Working Group along with the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Agency, therefore participating in a truly global scientific endeavour.