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Image courtesy the National Institutes of Health.

Two groups of Baylor College of Medicine researchers were awarded grants supported by the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

Dr. Andreas Tolias, associate professor of neuroscience, and Dr. Dora Angelaki, professor and the Wilhelmina Robertson Chair of Neuroscience, in collaboration with Dr. Xaq Pitkow, McNair Scholar and assistant professor of neuroscience at Baylor and of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University, were awarded grants by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), respectively.

In 2013, President Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative with the goal of creating deeper understanding of devastating brain disorders and diseases while also developing new technology, treatment and cures through new and innovative research.  Four federal agencies, The National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, committed more $110 million to the initiative.

Tolias and his collaborators, Dr. Michael Roukes and Dr. Athanassios G. Siapas, both with the California Institute of Technology, and Dr. Kenneth Shepard, with Columbia University, were awarded the NIH BRAIN Award for $4,274,174. This will support research toward developing a new technology to understand how large groups of cells interact to process information. Together with his collaborators, they plan to build ultra-dense, light-emitting and light-sensing probes, which will enable them to simultaneously record the electrical activity of hundreds of thousands of neurons in any given region of the brain. Current technologies are limited for a variety of reasons, such as working best only on the surface of the brain. The new probes are based on distributing a dense 3-D lattice of emitter and detector pixels within the brain itself, allowing for the study of information processing and neuropsychiatric diseases at the circuit level.

“Our mental functions, like perception, cognition and action, arise by billions of nerve cells interacting through trillions of connections to orchestrate their activities. The technology we want to develop promises to provide us with a unique capability to record from very large neural ensembles in order to decipher the principles of information processing in the brain. Discovering these computational principles will also ultimately lead to a better circuit level understanding of neuropsychiatric diseases and thus could provide novel strategies for circuit specific interventions,” Tolias said.

 Angelaki and Pitkow were awarded the Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) from the NSF in support of the BRAIN initiative for $300,000. Their research will focus on designing and testing a virtual reality system for conducting behavioral neuroscience studies that will allow researchers to observe neural computations during a natural task. This is in contrast to the usual type of model that examines neural computations during simplified tasks conducted in a lab setting. Developing this new technology will allow researchers to factor in the nonlinear dynamics the brain uses to solve complex tasks, filling in more of the pieces when it comes to understanding how the brain works. Pitkow and his team will analyze the behavioral tasks to specify how parts of the brain cooperate to identify task-relevant variables and use them to drive behavior.

“We are trying to understand how the brain works in tasks that demand fluid and adaptive behavior, which I view as one of the great mysteries of cognition. Systems neuroscience has traditionally shied away from such complexity, but our tools and understanding have now progressed far enough that it is time to move beyond this traditional approach, and tackle much harder and more natural problems,” Pitkow stated.

“It is a very exciting time for neuroscience,” said Angelaki.