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Brazil's "City of the Brain"

Q&A: Renowned Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has founded the world's first science district focused on neurotechnology.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Science and innovation is booming in Brazil after decades of underinvestment as the government takes advantage of the country's dramatic economic growth to invest in research.

A renowned Brazilian neuroscientist, Miguel Nicolelis is famous for experiments at Duke University that used signals from monkeys’ brains to make robots walk.

After the historic 2002 election of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Nicolelis decided it was time to take his research to his home country.

Eight years later, he’s launched the country’s largest science initiative and has done it in the northeastern city of Natal, in one of Brazil’s poorest regions. He calls the innovative project “the City of the Brain” and he spoke with GlobalPost about it last week.

GlobalPost: What exactly will this City of the Brain look like?

Nicolelis: Imagine a hybrid of Palo Alto and Research Triangle Park — with a Brazilian touch. It’s going to be the first science district in the world focused on neurotechnology. So you’ll have a mix of startups and already well-established companies that will come to this research park. In addition, you’re going to have all sorts of cultural and intellectual initiatives to showcase Brazilian science, Brazilian art and Brazilian culture, mixed with this environment of innovation and knowledge production focused on the brain.

Can you name any of the companies involved?

I cannot give you the names now because we are still negotiating, but several major American and European companies already demonstrated a very high level of interest.

When will things be up and running?

We have units of the campus that have been running since 2005. The neuroscience institute has already published many articles. We have a women’s clinic that is already overseeing the prenatal care of 16,000 women a year. The two science education schools that we maintain for 1,000 children are now going to be increased to 3,000 children. We are now building a very large school, the first school in Brazil that will go from pre-natal care all the way to the university.

How will that school work?

It’s a full-time public school. Half of the day is the regular curriculum of the Brazilian Ministry of Education. The other half is science education with a curriculum that we developed. It’s a new concept called Education for a Whole Life.

Have you seen results so far?

After the three-year program that we started, the performance of these kids on national exams skyrocketed. You have to realize that the state of Rio Grande do Norte has the worst scores in the entire country of Brazil. It’s at the bottom of the ladder. But our students started performing at the level of the best states in Brazil in only three years. If you can do that in Natal, you can do that anywhere.

Doesn’t it seem unusual for a research scientist to become so involved in social issues?

In 2002, when Lula was elected, his victory speech said it was time for us to build Brazil. I watched that speech live on TV and I realized that science also had a role to play. I believe that science — particularly in this moment of our history as a species — has tremendous potential to contribute to social and economic growth.

I took that idea to the president of Brazil. I wrote a letter to him and he said, ‘Well come over to talk to me.’ And I went. And I proposed to him that I would do this thing in Natal. And I said ‘Look, I want to do that in a way that I can prove to you that for each dollar that you give me, I’ll raise two dollars from private donations and private companies and show you that can be done.’

It was started in March of 2003 with 50 reais [$30]. That’s how much I had. Now, this is the largest scientific initiative in Brazil. It proved that it can be done, and, more importantly, that scientists can actually have different roles in society.

And the response of the community in Natal — the children, the mothers, the scientists who went there — shows that this idea of science as an agent of social transformation is real. It’s not just a slogan. Knowledge can really change the reality of a community.

Condensed and edited by Solana Pyne