Efforts to refine tools for recording brain activity get $1 million boost with NIH grant

Photo of brain activity with glowing trails of light spreading between connected nerves.
Stanford scientists have created new tools that let researchers read brain activity by observing glowing trails of light spreading between connected nerves.

This week the National Institutes of Health handed out the first $46 million in funding for their 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.

That award went to MARK SCHNITZER, associate professor of biology and of applied physics, and MICHAEL LIN, assistant professor of pediatrics and of bioengineering, to expand on work they published earlier this year. Lin and Schnitzer, along with postdoctoral fellows François St-Pierre and Yiyang Gong, had each developed tiny protein sensors that could detect voltage changes within a neuron. These provided the first accurate real-time view of a neuron’s electrical activity.

The BRAIN initiative award will support work to improve both the sensors and the microscopes that record the brain’s activity.

In order to record a nerve’s firing, which lasts about 2 to 4 milliseconds, scientists need a tiny microscope that can record many neurons at the same time at a rate of 1,000 frames per second.

“It’s a real instrumentation challenge,” Lin said. Current microscopes record at about 10 times slower than that rate. Schnitzer has expertise in developing tiny microscopes to monitor biological activities and will be leading that part of the work.

The second improvement is in the sensors themselves. Lin said that the first-generation sensors he and Schnitzer developed are good – certainly better than what existed previously – but now they want to screen thousands of iterations of the original probes to find ones that are even more effective. They’ll be working with THOMAS BAER, executive director of the Stanford Photonics Research Center, who has developed technology to screen thousands of samples simultaneously.

In the announcement of these awards, NIH Director FRANCIS COLLINS said, “There’s a big gap between what we want to do in brain research and the technologies available to make exploration possible. These initial awards are part of a 12-year scientific plan focused on developing the tools and technologies needed to make the next leap in understanding the brain. This is just the beginning of an ambitious journey and we’re excited about the possibilities.”

The NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have together committed $110 million to the BRAIN initiative in fiscal year 2014.

The NIH funding strategy for the BRAIN initiative is guided by a working group co-led by WILLIAM NEWSOME, director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute and professor of neurobiology. Schnitzer was also a member along with KARL DEISSEROTH, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

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, and 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.”

— BY AMY ADAMS