A team of researchers, including three UC Santa Barbara professors, were granted an award of $9 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that supports research and education of science and engineering, in order to help initiate a smaller and non-invasive form of optical brain imaging. This project, named the N.E.M.O.N.I.C. (NExt generation MultiphOton NeuroImaging Consortium) project, has the goal of gathering new information about the brain and disseminating this newfound research for labs internationally.

Optical brain imaging has previously been an invasive form of research, as electrodes had to be physically inserted into the brain to stimulate certain nerves and muscles. With the discovery of two-photon microscopy, shorter wavelengths are used to penetrate brain tissue as well as to collide into each other, exciting fluorescence in the brain.

The N.E.M.O.N.I.C. project uses similar techniques with the goal of creating the same machine on a much smaller and affordable scale as well as to distribute information regarding their project to other researchers. The latter has already been implemented as scientists from multiple different backgrounds, such as electrical engineering and psychology, are collaborating to create this device.

The first and foremost objective would be to create a smaller and cheaper microscope and make it wireless using the same techniques already known. The prize granted by NSF would go into funding their research as well as holding conferences amongst different scientists to share their research.

“The more you democratize science and the more of these tools you get to people, suddenly you get innovation at all levels,” Luke Theogarajan, a professor in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said.

The NSF is one of the federal agencies leading the B.R.A.I.N. Initiative. This year, the NSF gave 17 Next Generation Networks for Neuroscience (NeuroNex) awards to support the development of new experimental tools, theoretical frameworks and computational models that can be widely shared to advance neuroscience research. With this award, UCSB is now a designated NeuroNex Neurotechnology Hub, making it a critical part of the national neuroengineering network. / Courtesy of obamawhitehouse.archives.gov

He also went on to explain how this device would work on a miniature scale.

“If you could make a microscope that could sit on top of the animal itself and decouple all those expensive equipment then you can actually get free moving behavior which is very hard to do. So our whole goal with this N.E.M.O.N.I.C. project is to take a semiconductor laser with enough energy that can actually do everything the regular microscope can do, but make it light enough and small enough that you can actually put it on top of the animal.”

With this small of a device, multiple discoveries regarding unknown functions of the brain can be found, such as how large numbers of neurons can coordinate their activity.

“One of the things I’m working on is what happens to the activity in the cortex — which is a very important part of the mouse’s brain — when they learn a new bit of information. So we are training them to navigate through these virtual mazes, and then we switch one of the turns and we see how that causes activity to re-map,” Michael Goard, associate professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences and in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB), said

With the discoveries of brain function and neuron behavior, a direct link to medicine and health can be found, and this may help provide information on how to recover plasticity for parts of the brain or to help mobilize paraplegics.

“Knowing how [the brain] works can help people who have disorders. If you could report from the brain, you could use that to control a prosthetic arm or figure out what kind of drugs you need to be delivering in order to correct the behavior,” Theogarajan said. “At the end of the day, it is about what you can do to help people who are not able to help themselves.”

This project will be beneficial for UCSB as it will connect and foster relationships between multiple different departments and bring together people who might not otherwise interact.

“Anytime you have a group of people who are linked together in terms of their funding, it really gives them an incentive…Part of the program is getting together and sharing our results, so I think it will really foster that collaboration in a way that probably wouldn’t happen if we weren’t all part of this project together,” Goard said.