Noah collected animals for his ark two by two but Emory Neuroeconomics Professor and Center for Neuropolicy Director Gregory Berns wants their brains by the thousands.
Sixty-seven percent of animal species are estimated to go extinct by 2020 due to climate change, according to a 2016 World Wildlife Fund report. Propelled by the chance that opportunities to study animals could be lost forever, Berns is collaborating with scientists from across the globe to collect and scan animal brains for a new database called Brain Ark.
The database, still in its infancy, is available to the public and will contain images of brain scans of animals, some of which have never been studied in a neuroscientific context before, according to Berns. In the past, Berns has scanned the brains of a rare Tasmanian tiger and an extinct marsupial. The brain scans will primarily contain structural information on each animal brain.
Berns and Brain Ark collaborator and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the New College of Florida Peter Cook said Brain Ark will primarily be used by the scientific community to bridge gaps in current understanding of the mammalian brain.
“Knowing the structure of these brains could shed light on the evolutionary history of the mammal brain,” Cook said.
The initiative, which launched December 2016, uses a functional magnetic resonance machine (fMRI) to record the brain structures of previously unstudied, deceased animals from places like zoos and animal sanctuaries.
To date, Berns has scanned the brains of seals from off the coast of California, multiple dolphin brains and is now focusing on carnivore brains. Ultimately, Berns sees Brain Ark as an ongoing effort that will continue to grow as long as current species are going extinct and new species are developing. The brains are most often obtained from a country-wide alert network that recovers bodies of deceased animals and harvests their organs for scientific research.
While neuroscience research previously uncovered information on rat, mice and primate brains, Berns said little work has been done to understand the brains of 5,000 other mammals that exist within the animal kingdom. Collecting data for Brain Ark will help close that gap in knowledge, he said.
“A lot of [animal] brains are sitting on shelves around the world doing nothing,” Berns said.
Beyond acquiring more resources, increasing public awareness will help Brain Ark get more funding. Currently, Berns says financial support surrounding Brain Ark is nonexistent.
Since there is practically no funding, Berns and other contributors scan brains in their spare time and use fMRI machines at night when they are not in use.
While Berns has applied for federal funding, he is “not very optimistic given recent proposed cuts in science funding.”
In addition to growing the database, Berns is also in talks with several museums about installing Brain Ark exhibits. After creating public awareness, he hopes to create a consortium of scientists, zoos and animal sanctuaries who will contribute to the growing project.