Looking Deep Into the Brain With New Technology Bankrolled by Foundations

Photo: Alex Mit/shutterstock

Photo: Alex Mit/shutterstock

One critical role that philanthropy can play to advance scientific knowledge is to invest in new or experimental research tools. We've written about how the Moore Foundation and other funders have put millions of dollars into bankrolling powerful telescopes that can look deeper into the cosmos. And also how private grantmaking has financed advanced microscopes that are leading to a "revolution" in biology research.  


We'll here's another intriguing example of such funding: Two American and two British funders backed the development of a new probe to monitor neural activity with more precision and lower cost than currently available technology. The collaboration presents a unique philanthropic approach to making better tech more widely available to academic researchers, particularly in cases where costs are higher than most government grants or universities will cover.

The implantable devices, called Neuropixels, fit almost 1,000 sensors along each individual probe thinner than a human hair, allowing researchers to monitor neural activity with far greater clarity and across multiple regions of a living brain. They span larger stretches of a brain, use denser arrays of electrodes, and have a built-in recording system, which combine to make a more powerful device that is easier to use, and potentially much more affordable for the average lab. 

The consortium behind the project published the results in the journal Nature this month, and while not available yet, they anticipate other researchers will be able to purchase them in mid-2018. Monitoring electrical activity in the brains of living rodents is a common tool for neuroscientists, but conventional probes have between 16 and 64 sensors, meaning Neuropixels could provide a major step up for the research community if widely adopted. 

What’s interesting from a funding standpoint is that the four philanthropic organizations bankrolling the consortium—HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, Allen Institute for Brain Science, Gatsby Charitable Foundation, and the Wellcome Trust—pooled together $5.5 million for a four-year project across multiple labs, just to develop one tool. It took longer than they expected, originally intended to be a 38-month effort, but is now on the way to completion. 

It started in 2013, when a group of researchers led by Janelia’s Timothy Harris began exploring how they might dramatically improve the technology commonly used to read electrical activity in the brain. As Harris put it back in 2013, “the world knows how to make fancy electronics now. We’ve been living in the Dark Ages.” 

A big part of the challenge was not the science itself—they knew better tools were possible—but the development and manufacturing of something that would be convenient and affordable. The consortium came up with a price tag of around $5 million and started pitching to private funders.

They began working with imec, a Belgian nonprofit R&D center that specializes in nanoelectronics and silicon circuitry, which had the capability to manufacture something at the power and scale they were after. 

More than 400 prototypes are currently in use at several research labs. It’s not clear yet what the price tag will be when they become available, but a core goal of the initiative is affordability, and a project site says they’ll be available to the public at cost price.

Improving research tools has always been an interest of a set of science philanthropists, because of the appealing potential for funds having a much larger, ongoing benefit. We’ve seen this since the earliest high-power telescopes had backing from wealthy donors.

But there’s also a need for this sort of mid-range tech upgrade, with a price-tag much bigger than the six-figure ceiling of most government grants, but far below a high-profile capital investment like a new facility. You can imagine this kind of need will become more acute as new technology, especially related to data collection and analysis, becomes increasingly indispensable. That’s a compelling use for philanthropy, once again showing how collaboration is behind some of the sector’s most interesting projects.