The computer, the instrument of the sciences of complexity, will reveal a new cosmos never before perceived. Because of its ability to manage and process enormous quantities of information in a reliable, mechanical way, the computer, as a scientific research tool, has already revealed a new universe. This universe was previously inaccessible, not because it was so small or so far away, but because it was so complex that no human mind could disentangle it.
HEINZ PAGELS, Dreams of Reason
Scientists studying the brain have generated a wealth of experimental data, and this explosion of information has unlocked many of the secrets of brain functioning. Moreover, this progress already has helped to alleviate some of the human suffering that results from brain injury and disease. Ironically, however, the field is threatened by its own success in that the sheer mass of information available to basic and clinical neuroscientists is becoming unmanageable. Effective access to existing neuroscience information is critical to the enterprise of discovery: such information forms the basis for new hypotheses, drives the search for improved methodology, and, ultimately, leads to the advances necessary for fundamental improvements in human health.
One way to improve access and speed the meaningful dissemination of scientific discoveries is through the application of sophisticated computer and information-sharing technologies. These enabling
technologies currently assist space exploration, earth mapping, global communication, and dissection of the atom, among other functions. In certain types of scientific investigation, computer and information technologies have led directly to new ways of observing, simulating, and manipulating biological and physical processes. The neuroscience community has seen an escalation in the use of computer technologies to collect and analyze data, organize the data of individual investigators, and share experimental results with other researchers. As computer-based tools for three-dimensional representations, simulation and modeling, and storage of large data sets improve, their usefulness to the study of the brain becomes more apparent. During the past decade, many neuroscientists have become interested in the expanded application of computer and information technologies in their research, with the goal of forging new pathways for communication among investigators and managing diverse collections of scientific information.
This report results from the deliberations of the Institute of Medicine 's Committee on a National Neural Circuitry Database, whose objective was to consider the desirability, feasibility, and possible ways of implementing a family of electronic (e.g., networks) and digital (e.g., computer databases) resources for the enhancement of neuroscience research. The committee was formed in response to a request from Lewis Judd, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); it was funded by NIMH in cooperation with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The impetus for the study came in large part from the need expressed by neuroscientists for new ways of collecting and integrating the large amount of data they generate. An additional motivation was the increased attention of the general scientific community and of policymakers regarding the challenges presented by these emerging technologies and their potential to support and improve research. Initiatives such as the National Research and Education Network, proposed by Senator Albert Gore and supported by the President's Science Advisor, and the long-range plans of the National Library of Medicine to construct digital libraries are examples of this increased attention.
The incorporation of computer and information technology into a scientific field often begins through trial and error, driven by individual scientists who respond to opportunities as they emerge. The initial use of these technologies is often highly individual, and it generally proceeds in the absence of any coordination within specific scientific disciplines. As usage expands, however, the need for coordination and standardization increases, raising important questions about the development of appropriate governmental policies, which
ultimately affect the conduct of research both nationally and internationally.
Within this broad context, the charge to this committee was to
formulate a position on the requirements for and appropriateness of establishing a family of digital resources for basic and clinical neuroscience that would allow optimal data communication and sharing among investigators;
consider the scope and elements of data that should constitute these resources and determine strategies for representing the diverse data types generated by neuroscientists;
examine existing national databases to identify successful data storage, retrieval, and sharing strategies as well as potential pitfalls for the establishment of computerized resources for neuroscience;
describe an effective structure for a family of computerized resources to allow its efficient establishment and optimal coordination for use by the neuroscience research community, clinical investigators, clinicians, students, and educators; and
provide recommendations on future directions in program development for NIMH, NIDA, and NSF with respect to such computerized resources.
To fulfill its charge, the committee drew on many sources of expertise, beginning with the experience and knowledge of its members. A diverse set of activities supplemented the committee's deliberations and provided key data for the study. Between October 1989 and October 1990, the committee convened four task forces, in total, comprising 43 neuroscientists and computer and information science experts, that considered various resource options in terms of varied levels of neuroscience inquiry (see Appendix A ). The committee also solicited input from the neuroscience community through published requests for opinions, letters to the present officers and past presidents of the Society for Neuroscience, and a series of three symposia and open hearings (these activities are summarized in Appendix B and Appendix C ).
Based on these activities and deliberations, this report focuses on the benefits that could be realized by the successful application of electronic and digital resources to the conduct of research into brain functions. The report's recommendations provide a structural framework for initiating a program to apply these resources; they also identify certain key elements that should be considered by those who may be charged with implementing such a program. Thus, the report should be useful for policymakers and directors of institutions who will be involved in the endeavor. It is hoped that the committee 's
findings will underscore for this audience the importance of increasing the integration of information technology and computer science with neuroscience in particular and with the biomedical research enterprise in general. In addition, the report is aimed toward working scientists to foster an understanding of the benefits to be gained by using these resources in their own research and by sharing their results. As we enter the Decade of the Brain, the committee believes that an exciting opportunity exists to harness computer and information technology for the enhancement of neuroscience research. The advantages to be derived from seizing this opportunity include accelerated progress in understanding and treating neurological and mental illness, brain and spinal cord injury, and developmental deficits.