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Science with a social mission

A plan for the implantation of 11 institutions along similar lines follows the inauguration of the Natal Neuroscience Institute

MAYUMI OKUYAMASome of the most relevant and advanced themes for research in neuroscience under way in different parts of the world were presented, inside an intensive schedule, during the 2nd Natal International Neuroscience Symposium, from February 23 to 25 last. The prospects for developing robots of great interest for neuroscience, with, for example, a behavior closer and closer to human behavior, were shown by Japanese researcher Gordon Cheng, the head of the Department of Humanoid Robotics and Computational Neuroscience, of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International (ATR).

Headquartered in Kyoto, Japan, the institution is part of an international network of neuroscience research centers that, amongst other targets, have one to develop neural prostheses based on the brain/machine interface, capable to giving back to people who have been mutilated or have their movements impaired by serious neurological diseases mobility and sensitivity. Put another way, Cheng, one of the 30 foreigners invited to the symposium in Natal, is working on the quest for more perfect robotic members, finely controlled by the electrical activity of the brain, in collaboration at a distance, but close, with the laboratory of the Brazilian neurologist Miguel Nicolelis in Duke University, in the United States, and now also with the Natal Neurological Institute, designed and implanted under this scientist’s leadership (see Pesquisa FAPESP, issue 132).

Incidentally, the festive, musical events relating to the inauguration of the institute, on the first day and at the close of the symposium – which managed to bring together inside an auditorium about 400 people from all over Brazil -, gave the political dimension of what was happening there, in parallel to the solid scientific content of the event.

Accordingly, at the beginning of the Friday afternoon, after the five conferences in the morning that had started the work of the symposium, those who stood out in front of the audience were the president of the Brazilian Central Bank, Henrique Meirelles, the president of the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep), Odilon Macuzzo do Canto, and the president of the Safra Foundation, Lily Safra. Before calling them to the auditorium’s stage, Nicolelis read passages of a letter from the President of the Republic, Luís Inácio da Silva, sent specially for the occasion. Lula highlighted the social side of the institute’s project, which along with the advanced research center involves a center for educating youngsters and an health center for mothers and children, and emphasized that, for various reasons, including the capacity for mobilizing public and private resources, from Brazil and from abroad, the enterprise headed up by Nicolelis was bringing to this country “new ways of doing science”.

Finally, he talked of his desire that the institute in Natal were only the first of many similar ones. That sounded like a sort of official blessing for the scientist’s ambitious plan to implant, in needy regions of the country, 11 more institutes along the lines of the one in Natal, in different areas of knowledge, beginning with biotechnology and energy. Funds for this? It isn’t a problem, it will possible to raise them, the author of the idea guarantees.

It was with feeling that Nicolelis presented himself to the public during the reading of the letter and who next highlighted the special meaning that there is for Brazilian researchers who are far away from the country to be able “to go back home” and to give back in the form of scientific enterprises a good deal of what they had learnt and conquered abroad. It was then that he also announced that the new institution would now be called the Edmond and Lily Safra International Neuroscience Institute of Natal.

Responsible, via the Safra Foundation, for a significant private financial donation to the institute, which everything points to being with precedent in the environment of Brazilian scientific production, Mrs. Lily, the widow of Edmond Safra the banker, stated in her brief speech that she was at that event celebrating two of her passions. “In the first place, supporting neuroscience through projects all over the world has been one of my priorities for a long time”, she stated. Later on, she said that the project had also attracted her “for embracing another priority cause in my life – looking for innovative means of bringing the benefits of an education and apprenticeship in sciences to needy youngsters”.