CMU Launches Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Brain Research

Aug 26, 2014

One of the goals of BrainHub is to develop better brain imaging technologies.
Credit Flickr user CaptPiper

When Carnegie Mellon University President Subra Suresh first arrived on campus last summer, he knew he wanted to do something big — something that would bring together departments and research centers from across campus, build on existing scholarship, generate new knowledge and have an impact on the global stage.

“I didn’t have to convince anybody,” Suresh said Tuesday in the introductory marks for the launch of BrainHub, CMU’s new approach to studying the brain and behavior. He said the idea for the project came directly from the faculty themselves.

BrainHub will bring together faculty, researchers and students from across disciplines, including engineering, materials science, computational science, biology, mathematics, neuroscience and even philosophy and business. Global partners in the effort include the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, Oxford University, the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and Sun Yat-sen University in Guangdong, China.

Carnegie Mellon University launched BrainHub Tuesday with a panel discussion featuring researchers from across disciplines, including machine learning, medicine, biology and neuroscience.
Credit Liz Red / 90.5 WESA

“As faculty, we like to engage with people who know things that we don’t know,” said Interim Provost Nathan Urban. “We like to … look around and try to identify those things that would be the most useful, the most powerful techniques to bear on a problem that we care about.”

That problem, according to National Institute of Mental Health Director Dr. Thomas Insel, who gave the keynote address at Tuesday’s event, is the public health challenge of the 21st century: non-communicable chronic diseases.

“(That includes diseases such as) heart disease, cancer,” Insel said. “But most of all, it’s mental and behavioral disorders because they start in young people and they are the most costly of all the non-communicable chronic disorders.”

Suresh began his talk by pointing out the growing economic costs of neuropsychological disorders. He said addiction and alcoholism cost the U.S. about $524 billion annually. Mental illnesses like schizophrenia and depression: $350 billion. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s: $226 billion. That’s a total price tag of $1.1 trillion in the U.S. alone; globally, that figure jumps to $5 trillion.

Suresh said the human costs are even greater, with 16 million Americans reporting major depression each year, one in 68 children being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, a 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s by age 85 and three occurrences of suicide worldwide every minute.

But Suresh said BrainHub researchers won’t be looking exclusively at neurological and behavioral disorders.

“How does the brain learn?” Suresh said. “How can we induce the brain to learn in a much more productive way through technologies and tools? This is an area where I think we will see rapid progress in the next five to 10 years.”

BrainHub is meant to address the glaring needs in brain research, which include better imaging technology and the ability to harness and analyze large amounts of data.

Suresh said he expects the BrainHub initiative to spur the creation diagnostic tools, therapies and drug interventions, as well as tools for furthering the study of the brain itself.

Nathan Urban said CMU has a long history of turning research into solutions to real-world problems.

“We’ve been able to take a technology that was developed here and spin off a company or license the technology and have the impact of that be so much broader than if it were only something we’d kept within our own walls,” Urban said.

According to Thomas Insel, those tools are vital for furthering the study of the brain, which he said is the one organ we know very little about. President Obama last spring unveiled the BRAIN Initiative, meant to “better understand how we learn, think, and remember.”  Insel, who is involved with the project as part of his role at NIH, said they are taking a tool-based approach.

“One of the insights from astronomy has been the importance of better telescopes,” Insel said. “If you can see farther and see better, you can ask much better questions. The same thing is true in biology. Increasingly in biology progress is defined by having the tools that set up the right questions and allow you to collect the right kind of data.”

BrainHub is assured $75 million in funding over the next five years. Major donors include Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Dietrich Foundation, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, among others.