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NNSA research and capabilities shed light on the human brain

From a brain-inspired supercomputer for physics simulations to materials science from the structure of cow eyes, NNSA’s laboratories are adept at linking biology with technology to benefit both fields of study. In June, which is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, Americans reflect on the nation’s sixth leading cause of death—dementia. Research at NNSA’s laboratories helps further scientific understanding of mental deterioration and the neurological processes it affects.

The technologies and methods developed to help researchers understand how nuclear reactions work are consistently used to help explain equally complex and tiny biological phenomena – like how neurons fire, how proteins clump in the brain, and how metals form in the brain concurrently with development of Alzheimer’s disease.  NNSA scientists have used X-rays and neutron beams to reveal important variations in brain structure to help explain how dementia and Alzheimer’s happen.

NNSA’s need for powerful supercomputing to create simulations and models to verify nuclear weapons in the absence of underground explosive tests enables researchers to study biology’s most complex networking system – the human brain. Computer modeling helps explain how memory, language, and intelligence happen in the human brain – and how these processes are affected by aging and trauma.

Computer simulations have also empowered scientists to model brain and neural functioning on an atomic level. NNSA researchers have used computer models to explore biologically important molecular machines such as the ribosome. Studies of the fundamental structures that facilitate biological processes open windows into a range of diseases, from anemia, to cancer, to Alzheimer's. Supercomputing also enables high-powered calculations to support biological studies, including genome sequencing.

Researchers at NNSA’s labs hope to be able to treat a variety of debilitating neurological disorders, like Parkinson's, depression, and epilepsy, and restore lost neural functions such as sight, hearing, and mobility. At NNSA’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory a brain implant is being developed that could electrically stimulate neurons to help fight off memory loss caused by dementia and Alzheimer’s. Sandia National Laboratories scientists discovered that monitoring brain activity can help predict memory performance, giving cognitive neuroscientists a way to test hypotheses about how information is encoded in memory. Research at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory indicates that neuron membrane disruption may be responsible for the abnormal growths found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and damage that causes mental decline.

As researchers and technologies in the nuclear security enterprise lend their strengths to the fight against Alzheimer’s and dementia, they are also encouraging the next generation of scientific leaders to carry the torch. The national laboratories host educational programs in neuroscience and biology, furthering the study of neural networks. A Sandia cognitive scientist started a program to interest middle schoolers in STEM, and particularly in how brain and cognitive processes work.

Learn more about the work NNSA’s laboratories do, and how the nuclear security enterprise empowers medical breakthroughs.

Sandia National Laboratories' Susan Stevens-Adams wears a cap dotted with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors that are injected with gel to make sure they have good contact. EEGs are used as part of a study into memory and memory training.