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Federal BRAIN Initiative funds go to create better sensors for recording the brain's activity

Optical voltage sensorUpdated 10-2-14: A quote from Schnitzer was added to the post.


10-1-14: Yesterday the National Institutes of Health handed out the first $46 million in funding for the BRAIN Initiative, announced in 2013. Stanford got one of those awards, worth almost $1 million to develop improved ways of recording activity in the brain.

The award went to applied physicist Mark Schnitzer, PhD, and bioengineer Michael Lin, MD, PhD, to expand on work they published last year. The pair had each developed tiny sensors that could detect voltage changes within a neuron. These provided the first real-time view of a nerve’s activity. When I wrote about their initial work earlier this year I described how these probes could be used:

With these tools scientists can study how we learn, remember, navigate or any other activity that requires networks of nerves working together. The tools can also help scientists understand what happens when those processes don't work properly, as in Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases, or other disorders of the brain.

The proteins could also be inserted in neurons in a lab dish. Scientists developing drugs, for example, could expose human nerves in a dish to a drug and watch in real time to see if the drug changes the way the nerve fires. If those neurons in the dish represent a disease, like Parkinson's disease, a scientist could look for drugs that cause those cells to fire more normally.

The BRAIN initiative award will help the team develop better sensors, and also improve the technology for recording the signals. In a conversation, Lin told me that a brain signal lasts about 2-4 milliseconds. Any camera for recording that activity needs to record about 1,000 frames per second, and current cameras operate at about one tenth of that speed. Schnitzer has expertise in developing tiny cameras for recording biological activity and will be working to create a faster camera to pair with Lin's improved sensors.

Schnitzer participated in a panel discussion at a White House Brain Conference held the same day the grants were announced. He said, “I think there are many important roles for engineering and new technology that will likely emerge in the BRAIN initiative... I expect the results will be profound by helping to unlock some of the central mysteries of brain function, by providing new tools and helping to lay the basis for conceptual foundations in our efforts to prevent and cure brain disease and brain disorders and also in harnessing some of the brain’s computational strategies for humanity’s own technological purposes.”

Previously: Thoughts light up with new Stanford-designed tool for studying the brainBold and game-changing” federal report calls for $4.5 billion in brain-research fundingNIH announces focus of funding for BRAIN initiative and New tool for reading brain activity of mice could advance study of neurodegenerative diseases
Image courtesy of Michael Lin

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