MIT Funds New Technologies for Neuroscience Research

The McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT today announced six awards to develop new technologies for neuroscience research. The projects, whose themes range from brain-machine interfaces to new genetic tools and brain imaging methods, are aimed at accelerating basic research and developing new therapeutic approaches for brain disorders.

The awards are part of the McGovern Institute Neurotechnology (MINT) program, established in 2006 to promote collaborations between neuroscientists and researchers from other disciplines within and around MIT. "Neuroscience has always been driven new technologies," says Charles Jennings, the MINT program director. "At the McGovern Institute we are fortunate to be surrounded by an extraordinary range of technological expertise. We want to take advantage of this environment to develop new methods that could transform the field."

The MINT awards provide up to $100,000 for one year of seed funding for innovative collaborative projects that are often difficult to support through traditional funding sources. "We're not expecting to solve all the problems in just one year," Jennings notes. "But with these grants, we can help researchers test new ideas quickly and find out whether they are worth pursuing further."

Since its inception, the MINT program has supported 11 projects, including the six new ones:

Smart materials for brain recordings

To study long term changes in the brain, researchers need to make chronic recordings of neural activity. But the standard electrodes can damage brain tissue and lose their electrical contacts over time, so there is a need to develop alternative, biocompatible electrode materials. One such material is carbon nanotubes (CNTs), and Emilio Bizzi of the McGovern Institute will collaborate with Jing Kong in the MIT department of electrical engineering and computer science to explore the use of CNTs for neural recording. Bizzi, who researches the control of movement, wants to use long-term recordings initially for basic research but ultimately for prosthetic devices in human patients. Such devices might, for example, allow a paralyzed patient to control a robotic arm or a computer directly from the brain,

Bizzi will also collaborate with Robert Langer in the MIT department of chemical engineering, renowned for his work on biomaterials, to develop new coatings for another alternative electrode made from thin flexible strands of conducting polymers. These polymers are expected to produce less damage to brain tissue, but they are difficult to insert into the brain. Langer and Bizzi will explore one potential solution, a biodegradable coating that can provide temporary stiffness but disappears after insertion.

Manipulating intracellular signaling pathways using light

Ed Boyden, a member of the MIT media lab and an associate member of McGovern Institute, is a pioneer in the development of optical tools for manipulating electrical activity in neurons. He plans to extend this approach to manipulate intracellular signaling, in collaboration with Shuguang Zhang, director of the MIT Center for Biomedical Engineering and an expert on protein engineering. If successful, this could be a valuable method for determining the function of signaling pathways in vivo and for identifying potential targets for drug development.

Computational analysis of brain imaging data

One challenge for neuroscience research is analyzing the very large datasets produced by brain imaging studies. Two new MINT projects will explore different computational approaches, using data from Nancy Kanwisher at McGovern Institute. Kanwisher studies human vision, using functional MRI to determine how the brain recognizes visual objects.

In one project, Polina Golland in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) will use Kanwisher's fMRI data to search for brain areas that respond to specific categories of visual objects. Several such areas are known to exist, but the current methods for identifying them only work if they are in the same location in every person. Golland has developed a computational method that avoids this assumption. She and Kanwisher plan to test the method on a large body of brain scanning data to determine whether it can reveal the existence of new brain areas that cannot be found with existing methods.

In another related project, Kanwisher will work with Navia Systems Inc, a startup company founded by former MIT students. Navia uses proprietary computational methods, licensed from MIT, to identify patterns in large complex datasets and assign significance to them. Kanwisher hopes these methods will provide new insights into how visual information is represented within the brain. If successful, this method could greatly expand our ability to interpret neuroimaging data and could enhance the study of brain disorders, for example by identifying relationships between brain activity, genetics and clinical diagnostic categories.

Precise dissection of single brain cells

Researchers often use a method called laser capture microdissection (LCM) to analyze single cells within a tissue -- for example to identify genetic abnormalities that distinguish tumor cells from their healthy neighbors. The ability to analyze single cells is especially important in the brain, where cells of many different types are closely intermingled. However, because of the brain's dense meshwork of connections, it is often impossible to cleanly remove a single cell without contamination from adjacent cells. To solve this problem, Ann Graybiel of the McGovern Institute will collaborate with Mehmet Fatih Yanik in the MIT department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who plans to develop a 3-dimensional laser-based cutting method that can dissect a single cell from its neighbors. Graybiel hopes to apply these new methods to her studies on the basal ganglia, brain regions implicated in Parkinson's disease, addictive behaviors and mood disorders.

"We're very excited about the caliber of these MINT projects, says Jennings. "We have some outstanding collaborators, and the potential payoff if we are successful is enormous. "We're always on the lookout for new ideas and we'd be delighted to hear from anyone who wants to work with us."

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