Very often in neuroscience, researchers, doctors and even patients wish there was a way to literally see how the brain works. How the connections fire, how the synapses move along and how a single thought is turned into action. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one scientist might be close to doing just that.
Neuroscientist Spencer Smith, PhD, received a $300,000 National Science Foundation Early Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) to develop a two-photon microscope capable of recording the activity of individual neurons in different areas of the brain, at the same time. Dr. Smith is an assistant professor of cell biology and physiology at UNC-Chapel Hill and his concept for a microscope that will allow observers to witness active neural circuitry in the visual cortical areas of living animals could be a significant advance in neuroscience. If the project goes as planned, it will be a way for scientists to see specific neurons fire as a result of visual stimuli or the behavior of the animals.
In a press release from the UNC Neuroscience Center
, Professor Smith said, “Right now, we don’t really have a good idea how that happens. If you want to understand how the brain works, we have to be able to look at a more systems-level view of neural activity. We think it’s this type of technology that will give us the insights we need to advance our understanding of how brain circuitry actually works, not only in normal circumstances but in disease states.” There have been advances in brain pathology for certain disorders, but the actual action that occurs in the circuitry of the brain, from neuron to neuron is not well understood. Smith hopes the microscope he is working on can change that
“Down the line, we hope to address this with this new technology,” Smith said.
The NSF grant that Smith received is going towards the development of new lenses. While previous research has used lenses already available, Smith’s project is focusing on developing custom lenses. Smith is working with Jeffrey Stirman at UNC and Mike Kudenov of North Carolina State to create lenses that can increase the field of view in the cortex of the brain. The goal of the project is to use these lenses, along with optical systems, to improve the resolution of the images of the neurons.
The NSF issued 36 EAGER grants to researchers working to create technologies that will allow scientists to better understand how human behavior comes about as a result of neural activity inside different areas of the brain. A total of $10.8 in grants were awarded
as part of President Barrack Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, a multi-agency endeavor with the goal of creating new technology within the field of neuroscience to help open new areas of investigation into how the brain works.
Check out the video below, released this week from the NSF, to see the progress of Professor Smith’s grant work.