Cori Bargmann leads President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative

May 30, 2014

Last June, JCC Board of Scientific Advisors member Cori Bargmann presented an ambitious plan for the future of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to the NIH Director’s Advisory Committee. The plan, drafted by the BRAIN Working Group, calls for $4.5 billion to achieve seven primary research goals over a decade beginning in 2016. The goals focus on mapping the circuits of the brain, measuring patterns of electrical and chemical activity flowing within those circuits, and understanding how their interplay creates cognitive and behavioral capabilities. The NIH already announced a $40 million investment for 2014 and President Obama has requested $100 million for NIH’s component of the initiative for 2015.

As co-chair of the 15-member BRAIN Working Group, Bargmann played a critical role in soliciting input from diverse researchers and developing a consensus moving forward. “The biggest challenge, but an enjoyable one, was trying to understand the entire state of neuroscience and neurotechnology at this moment,” she says. “No one person can do so, obviously, and even the working group of 15 diverse experts had to bring in many additional scientists from many different fields to provide their perspectives.”

Patient advocacy groups and the public also offered input. “The most poignant emails were from people who were suffering from brain disorders, or people who had family members suffering from brain disorders. In many cases they ask how they could help the Brain Initiative. My co-chair Bill Newsome and I answered those individually — when a person makes human contact in that way, you can’t ignore them.”

NIH Director, Francis Collins, says he’s “excited about the bold vision laid out for BRAIN by this distinguished group of scientists, and have accepted the recommendations in their entirety.”

Bargmann began her career in neuroscience as a postdoc in Bob Horvitz’s MIT lab during the 1980s. At the time, neuroanatomy and neurophysiology were well established, but the use of genetics to explore neuroscience was not. Bargmann saw this as an opportunity. Using the just-published detailed wiring of the C. elegans nervous system, she sought to map sensory neurons and behavior to learn how worms respond to their environment. She documented some of the first evidence that C. elegans had a sense of smell capable of detecting hundreds of chemicals.

Bargmann then started a lab at the University of California, San Francisco in 1991 and moved to The Rockefeller University in 2004, where she is currently an HHMI Investigator and Torsten N. Wiesel Professor. Over the course of her career, she discovered a molecule that directs neurons to form proper connections during early development, found a gene that determines whether worms eat alone or in groups, demonstrated that worms are capable of learning and recalling food that makes them ill, and showed how odor-sensing neurons activate neurons that control crawling and turning, suggesting that short-lived sensory cues can generate long-lived reactions.

Bargmann’s accolades include the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, and the Richard Lounsbery Award, among many others. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.