KAVLI INSTITUTE HELPS SHAPE
NATIONAL BRAIN INITIATIVE
ne of the defining characteristics of the human
species is curiosity. It’s how we know that oysters
are edible. It’s why the protagonist in our favorite
horror movie opens the door and walks slowly down
the basement stairs to investigate those odd noises.
It’s how we know about the molecular structure of DNA. And
it’s why we have recently seen close-up pictures of the surface
of Pluto. Given our species’ thirst for knowledge, it is not
surprising that eventually we would direct this curiosity onto
the brain itself.
The human brain has billions of neurons and trillions of
connections. Its complexity is astounding. When it functions
well, it is what allows humans to conceive of, plan, and create a
cathedral or a symphony. But when things go wrong, it can lead
to dark depressions and make us forget even our own families.
In an unprecedented effort to understand the brain better,
President Obama announced in 2013 the establishment of the
BRAIN Initiative. (BRAIN stands for Brain Research Through
Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.)
The BRAIN Initiative, according to White House
materials, is “a bold new research effort to revolutionize our
understanding of the human mind and uncover new ways
to treat, prevent, and cure brain disorders like Alzheimer’s,
schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.”
Before the official announcement of the initiative, the
White House received advice and recommendations from
Chris Xu, professor of applied and engineering physics (AEP),
in the lab.
relevant agencies, institutions and
foundations, including Cornell’s Kavli
Paul McEuen, co-director of the Kavli Institute
and the Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics at Cornell,
and Chris Xu, professor of applied and engineering
physics at Cornell Engineering, met with other scientists
in the planning stages of the initiative. Together, the group
identified hurdles and opportunities related to studying the
brain. Their work informed the scientists’ recommendations for
what the BRAIN Initiative should encompass.
It is no surprise that Xu was asked to share his expertise.
He has been working at the leading edge of advances in
brain imaging technology for 10 years. Xu has been pushing
the capabilities of multi-photon microscopy, which allows
researchers to image the workings of the brain in living
specimens at previously unattainable depths and resolution.
So far, Xu and collaborators’ three-photon microscope can
penetrate a portion of a live mouse’s brain about 1 millimeter
below its surface.
Xu joined other academics and industry leaders at the
White House in September for a conference celebrating progress
on the BRAIN Initiative. There, the National Institutes of Health
announced its first wave of funding for the initiative, including
a three-year, $1.73 million grant to Cornell to support Xu’s