In April 2013, President Obama said he would ask Congress for $100 million in 2014 for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative to “revolutionize our understanding of the human brain”. ( THL Blog post about the BRAIN Initiative) We are now 2 days into 2014 and scientists are reporting that some of the tools necessary to support the initiative already exist in early versions. The new set of techniques, called optogenetics, allows researchers to control the activity of brain cells using light. While still in early phases of development, the technique will allow researchers to conduct real-time activation of large groups of cells rather than activating individual cells with wire probes. Challenges with the technique include how to best deliver light to cells deep in the brain and how to avoid light reaching unwanted cells, a case of power versus finesse. Scientists believe optogenetic techniques will change the way we understand brain disorders like epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
Innovation is not only happening in brain mapping but also in teaching neurosurgeons and providing opportunities for them to practice their skills. 3-D printers and visual simulators are providing beginner neurosurgeons with the chance to hone their skills on realistic skulls and brains. The University of Florida combines practice on 3-D printed brain models with a virtual simulator to “help students get accustomed to using imaging technology in the operating room”. For more information on the use of 3-D printers in medical training, see this article recently published by the Journal of Neurosurgery.