Nanotechnology Microscope for Brain Studies

In a world first, Spain is to use a nanotechnology microscope for brain studies as part of the Blue Brain project. The initiative is CSIC researcher Javier de Felipe's brainchild, and researchers at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid's School of Computing are developing a series of tools to analyse and interpret microscope data.

About thirty Spanish researchers are participating in the international Blue Brain project. The project's aim is to build a functional model of the mammalian brain through computer simulations. Spain's project leaders are Javier de Felipe and UPM School of Computing professor José María Peña.

The nanotechnology microscope to be applied to brain studies is to be set up at the Centre of Biomedical Technology based at the UPM's Montegancedo Campus and will operational as of June.

The use of this microscope signifies a major technological advance. On one hand, electron microscopes provide a limited detail level for brain cells studies. On the other, the nanotech microscope outputs samples of brain tissue in just two hours, something that, using other technologies, it would take two technicians a year to do.

The Spanish Blue Brain project team has acquired the microscope after a series of successful tests run at the manufacturer's headquarters. It will be paid for from the 25 million euro credit that the Spanish Government granted the Blue Brain project.

Technological developments

Spanish participation in the Blue Brain project focuses on two key aspects: i) neuroanatomy, a line of research developed by the Cajal Institute to capture data about the working and reactions of certain parts of the brain, and ii) development of the technology to visualize the complex results of this research.

Javier de Felipe leads the first research line, whereas José María Peña's team is developing the tools required to analyse the optical and electron microscope images output by the neuroanatomy research. 3D imaging will be used to visualize results.

The UPM's School of Computing team is to analyse the data using high-performance computing techniques running on the Magerit supercomputer based at the UPM-based Supercomputing and Visualization Centre of Madrid (CeSViMa). There is potential for the application of these technological developments in other disciplines in the future.

A promising future

Thanks to the simulations run by this team, it will be possible to observe the working and behaviour of the brain in the case of diseases like depression or Alzheimer. Also researchers will be able to test responses to new drugs on these computer models.

"The ultimate aim of the Blue Brain project," the Spanish researchers explained, "is to provide the scientific community with a simulation tool for developing basic and clinical research into brain structure and function."

Future neuroscientists will know how the brain forms, develops and ages or understand its learning mechanisms thanks partly to Blue Brain research.

Cajal Blue Brain

After Switzerland, Spain is the only country to have joined the project. It accounts for about a fifth of project knowledge generation.

Spanish participation is channelled through the Cajal Blue Brain initiative. Apart from the UPM and the CSIC, its members number another twelve scientific groups from different Spanish research institutes and organizations: Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas de Barcelona run by the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Universidad de Castilla La Mancha, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Universidad del País Vasco, Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Hospital Ramón y Cajal de Madrid and Hospital Carlos Haya de Málaga.

Other Blue Brain partners are the University of Jerusalem, which offers expertise in modelling the electrical properties of synaptic integration; the University of Nevada, Reno, which specializes in modelling the electrical properties of neurons; the University of Yale, which provides the Neuron simulator, and the University of London, which offers expertise in neocortical electrophysiology and anatomy.

The Blue Brain project got under way in 2005, when L'École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland) and IBM announced a project to create a functional model of the brain using the Blue Gene supercomputer. The UPM and the CSIC joined the Blue Brain consortium in 2008.

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