Miyoung Chun coordinates the scientists undertaking the epic government-funded basic research project known as the BRAIN Project.
BRAIN is the acronym for Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. The project was cited in President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address as a national effort to understand how the human brain works. The field is so essential to US prospects for continued global leadership that he deemed it worthy of billions of dollars in federal funding.
In its scale and complexity the BRAIN project has been compared to the Human Genome Project which took billions of dollars and drew on the resources of many government agencies, universities and foundations. Since the BRAIN project began 18 months ago the responsibility for coordinating and leading the efforts of its many participants has been assigned to molecular geneticist Miyoung Chun, vice president for science programs at the Kavli Foundation in Oxnard, California.
Creating “revolutionary new tools to measure the brain activities in thousands to millions of neurons in order to produce a general theory of the brain” is the fundamental goal of the BRAIN Project, Chun told Technology Review.
“We know how to measure the activity of small numbers of neurons—up to a few hundred,” she explained. “Using functional MRI, we also know how to measure the activities of patches of large numbers of neurons—from 30,000 to one million. But many critical brain functions involve anywhere from a few thousand to many millions of neurons.
“We want to understand how we reason, how we memorize, how we learn, how we move, how our emotions work,” she said. “These abilities define us. And yet we hardly understand any of it.”
One reason the Kavli Foundation has taken the lead in BRAIN is that its organizational goal is to provide long-term benefit to humanity through astroscience, neuroscience and nanoscience. The latter two are the BRAIN Project’s core disciplines.
“The brain functions at the nanoscale,” Chun explains. “So the tools to study brains must ultimately operate at this level as well. What’s really going to be needed is the ability to measure a lot more. Ten to 15 years ago, the time wasn’t right; now, it’s feasible.”
She sees BRAIN’s practical goal as deciphering brain activity to enable the creation of new prosthetics, treatments for brain disorders, better educational strategies, and smart technologies that mimic the brain’s abilities.
Though BRAIN shares the epic scale with the Human Genome Project, Chun says that unlike the HGP, BRAIN doesn’t allow the setting of a clear end point.
“Human Genome Project, the end was very clear,” she said. “As soon as you sequence three billion nucleotides, you’re done, right? But for the brain activity map, it’s probably imprudent to set a goal to measure the 100 billion neurons in the human brain. For one, we may never achieve such a goal; but more importantly, we don’t know if a smaller number will provide us the insights we need.”
To illustrate the reason for keeping the project open-ended, Chun cites John Donoghue of Brown University who was able to stimulate 100 neurons to enable a paralyzed stroke patient to move the arms of a robot to help her drink her coffee.
“A hundred neurons — imagine: maybe this patient can walk on her own if John can stimulate 100,000 neurons!” says Chun.
Prior to becoming Kavli Foundation’s vice president of science programs, Chun was an assistant dean of science and engineering at the University of California at Santa Barbara working with the California Nanosystems Institute.
From 1999 to 2005 she worked for Millennium Pharmaceuticals as a scientist and project leader focusing on functional genomics and on molecular imaging in drug discovery and development. She discovered and characterized novel genes important to inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases and has over 30 US and International issued/published patents.
She began her academic career as an assistant professor of biochemistry and a member of Whitaker Cardiovascular Institute at Boston University School of Medicine in 1995. She taught in the areas of cell biology and molecular medicine, and conducted research in signal transduction of G-protein coupled receptors.
Chun earned her PhD in molecular genetics from Ohio State University in 1990. She was a Life Sciences Research Foundation postdoctoral fellow at MIT’s Whitehead Institute focusing on the cell and molecular biology of receptors.