UChicago researcher awarded BRAIN Initiative funding

A noted University of Chicago researcher has been awarded funding from the National Institutes of Health as part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative.

The award for John Maunsell, director of the Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior, was announced Tuesday, Sept. 30. The funding will be used to develop laser technology to guide nerve cell firing and study how groups of neurons produce behavior.

Launched by President Obama in 2013, the BRAIN Initiative is a large-scale effort to equip researchers with fundamental insights necessary for treating a wide variety of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.

“An unprecedented number of new tools and approaches are enabling rapid progress on many fronts in neuroscience,” said Maunsell, the Albert D. Lasker Professor in the Department of Neurobiology. “Support from the BRAIN initiative is capitalizing on this opportunity to quickly make progress on understanding how healthy brains function and what goes wrong in disease states. The payoffs could be enormous. We’re very pleased to be able to contribute to this effort.”

Maunsell, in collaboration with Mark Histed, research associate and assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago, and Tommaso Fellin, senior researcher at the Italian Institute of Technology, received BRAIN Initiative funding to study the brain in action.

Any behavioral action or decision involves millions of neurons that fire in complex patterns. To investigate how the fine details of these patterns affect brain function, Maunsell and his team are using innovative laser technology that allow them to activate individual neurons with unprecedented precision. Neurons can be stimulated in specific patterns and at high speeds to replicate how they normally operate. This can be done using mice that have been trained to perform specific behavioral tasks. By changing the patterns of neural firing during a task and measuring the effect on the mice, the team hopes to reveal the brain areas and neural circuits that guide behavior.

“For the first time we are going to be able to produce specific patterns of activity in the brain and see what happens to behavior,” said Histed. “We hope to be able to answer previously unapproachable questions about these brain circuits.”

The first wave of BRAIN Initiative awards from the NIH total $46 million and supports 58 projects. The majority of the grants focus on developing transformative technologies that will accelerate fundamental neuroscience research. Four federal agencies—NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—have committed more than $110 million to the Initiative for fiscal year 2014.

“The human brain is the most complicated biological structure in the known universe. We’ve only just scratched the surface in understanding how it works—or, unfortunately, doesn’t quite work when disorders and disease occur,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins. “There’s a big gap between what we want to do in brain research and the technologies available to make exploration possible. These initial awards are part of a 12-year scientific plan focused on developing the tools and technologies needed to make the next leap in understanding the brain. This is just the beginning of an ambitious journey and we’re excited about the possibilities.”

For more information about the BRAIN Initiative, please visit: nih.gov/science/brain/