TR: What are some interesting new technologies you see on the neuroscience horizon?
CJ: I think we’re going to see a big impact from human genetics. Our neighbors at the Broad [Institute], for example, have developed tools to look at individual variations in our genetic information and are looking for genes involved in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. (See “A New Map for Health.”) Few genes have been identified so far, so there is really an urgent need to uncover the genetic basis of these diseases.
One of the trends we’ve seen in the last year or two is interest in combining genetics and brain imaging. If you identify a gene involved in psychiatric disease, you want to ask how that gene affects behavior and how it affects brain function. The brain is a black box until you look into it. The biggest challenge will be drawing all the connections between genes and behavior. How do environmental influences interact with genetics to shape the brain and influence behavior?
TR: What kinds of technologies do you want to develop?
CJ: So far, we are collaborating with Ian Hunter, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, who is developing nanowire electrodes that are much finer than current electrodes. (See “Tiny Electrodes for the Brain.”) You can feed them into more parts of the brain while doing less damage to the tissue.
Another project is to develop new methods for fMRI. We want to create reporter molecules that are sensitive to different [chemicals] in the brain, such as calcium, an important signaling molecule. A marker that changes with calcium concentration could image neural activity with much greater resolution than current methods.
In the long term, we want to think big–high-risk, high-payoff projects. If you look at fMRI, it’s a radical new way of looking at the brain. What will replace it 20 years down the line? The sci-fi view would be miniature devices that would lodge in the capillaries and record from close-by neurons and transmit that data through the skull. Think what you could do if you had high numbers of these things that could power themselves and swarm around the brain. We don’t know if it can be done, but I’ve been told there is no theoretical reason why it couldn’t.