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Kavli Institute Helps Shape National Brain Initiative

Friday, January 1, 2016

Professor Chris Xu

One 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 relevant agencies, institutions, and foundations, including Cornell’s Kavli Institute.

Paul McEuen, 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 ten 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. His work is an example of what is possible when deep knowledge of physics, engineering, and biology come together to address a challenge.

Article transcribed from the Fall 2015 Cornell Engineering Magazine
Written by Chris Dawson

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