NSF awards $9M grant to UCSB optical brain imaging group

The research group was recognized for its collaborative NEMONIC (NExt generation MultiphOton NeuroImaging Consortium) project.

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) has been awarded $9 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF; Arlington, VA) to develop and widely share state-of-the-art optical brain imaging techniques.

Related: Neuroscience 2016: The BRAIN Initiative and photonics

The research group, including UCSB scientists John Bowers, Michael Goard, and Luke Theogarajan, was recognized for its collaborative NEMONIC (NExt generation MultiphOton NeuroImaging Consortium) project, which pushes the boundaries of brain imaging.

The NEMONIC group uses light to measure brain activity. The wavelengths of light that the human eye processes do not pass through brain tissue easily. Instead, they bounce off the surface of the brain, the skull or the skin, and appear opaque, limiting the human ability to see internal brain activity. However, longer wavelengths of light can pass through brain tissue unobstructed. NEMONIC employs strategic combinations of these longer wavelengths to reach deeper into the brain and image the activity of cells that have been engineered to glow when stimulated.

To remove the technological bottlenecks to understanding the mind and the brain, the federal government launched the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative in 2013. As the name implies, the initiative is focused on developing new tools and strategies to image, map, diagnose, understand and repair the brain.

The NSF is one of the federal agencies leading the BRAIN Initiative. In 2017, 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.

The three-part NEMONIC project first will develop new, streamlined multiphoton imaging approaches. Second, the team will widely share the newly engineered technologies and strategies to promote the free and productive acquisition and exchange of data across the international neuroscience community.

Lastly, the NEMONIC team will capitalize on UCSB's expertise in photonics and super-resolution techniques to push the boundaries of what is possible with optical neuroimaging. “Current methods of peering into the brain use bulky expensive lasers to generate the narrow femtosecond pulses needed for multiphoton imaging,” says NEMONIC team member Theogarajan, a professor in the campus’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "We are proposing a miniaturized multiphoton microscope based on cutting-edge photonic integrated circuits developed at UCSB, enabling live animal imaging and making multiphoton imaging cheaper."

For more information, please visit http://brainucsb.herokuapp.com.

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