LINCOLN — University of Nebraska-Lincoln brain researcher Dennis Molfese made a whirlwind trip to Washington, D.C., last week in hopes of landing Nebraska a place in a watershed effort to unlock the secrets of the human brain.
It is expected that the Obama administration will soon announce details of a 10-year, multibillion-dollar research project with a goal of creating a comprehensive map of how brains work. Some have compared the effort to the Human Genome Project to map the genetic code.
Molfese is director of UNL's Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior — CB³, for short — that is to open this summer in the expanded east side of Memorial Stadium. He is the leader of a joint project of the Big Ten and Ivy League to study brain injuries in sports.
Molfese and Prem Paul, UNL vice chancellor of research and economic development, met last week with Philip Rubin, the White House's first-ever coordinator of neuroscience research.
Rubin, who is on leave as CEO of Yale University's Haskins Laboratories, is in charge of the “map the brain” initiative.
His meeting with Molfese and Paul was supposed to last about 15 minutes. Molfese said he ended up spending about 90 minutes with Rubin, with whom he had been previously acquainted.
Nothing formal has been decided, Molfese said. He left information about the Nebraska-led project to be shared with federal research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Academy. He expects to learn more in coming weeks about opportunities for the CB³ or the Big Ten/Ivy League partnership to become involved in the effort.
Molfese has said that the Big Ten/Ivy League project offers unprecedented opportunities to understand how brain injuries affect athletes and how the brain works.
It will include baseline magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of uninjured athletes for comparison with damaged brains.
Scientists know remarkably little about how the brain works, he said.
“We've been in this area of labeling: The medulla serves body functions, the hippocampus is involved in memory, the frontal lobes in decision-making. How the brain puts information together, we just don't know. We know enough that a surgeon can go in and improve the plumbing.”
The athletic study, which involves nine other laboratories in the Big Ten and two more in the Ivy League, is one of several research endeavors launched by Molfese, who was hired by UNL in 2010.
He and his wife, Victoria Molfese, also a researcher, are working on a study of toddlers' decision-making processes, for example. He also is training other UNL faculty and students on how to use his laboratory equipment for interdisciplinary research on the interplay between brain function and an array of topics, from political orientation to speech pathology.
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