UCSB Named National Science Foundation Neurotechnology Hub for Optical Brain Imaging

Monday, September 18, 2017

A multidisciplinary team of researchers including UCSB scientists John Bowers, Michael Goard, and Luke Theogarajan was awarded $9 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop and widely share state-of-the art optical brain-imaging techniques. 

The team of neuroscientists, electrical engineers, molecular biologists, neurologists, bioengineers, and physicists were recognized for their NEMONIC project (short for NExt generation MultiphOton NeuroImaging Consortium), 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. For this reason, our skin, skulls, and brains appear opaque to us, limiting the human ability to see the internal activity of brains. However, longer wavelengths of light can pass through brain tissue unobstructed. The NEMONIC team uses strategic combinations of these longer wavelengths of light to reach deeper into the brain and image the activity of cells that have been engineered to glow when stimulated. 
“This is a team that can do anything in multiphoton neuroimaging,” says NEMONIC team leader Spencer L. Smith, associate professor of cell biology and physiology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “The NEMONIC team has exactly the expertise to engineer new, robust optical solutions to the problem of imaging the brain.”

“The limit to understanding the brain is no longer the ability to store, process, and analyze data,” says B. N. Queenan, associate director of the UCSB Brain Initiative. “The fundamental barrier is the ability to see the brain in action. As neuroscientists, we would love to watch brain cells going about their daily business. We want to record all the cells all the time, but that’s just not possible with the existing technologies. Fundamentally, we need to invent new ways of seeing what brains are up to.”

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

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is one of the federal agencies leading the BRAIN Initiative. This year, the NSF made 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 NEMONIC project consists of three major efforts. First, the NEMONIC team will develop new streamlined multiphoton imaging approaches. Second, they 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.

“Labs around the world are imaging the brains of a range of animal species, but multiphoton microscopy systems are expensive and require significant expertise to build and use,” says NEMONIC team member Michael Goard, assistant professor in the departments of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology and Psychological & Brain Sciences at UCSB. “We want to make the multiphoton imaging process easier, cheaper, and more robust, so we can all combine and analyze our data more effectively.” 

In the third part of the project, the NEMONIC team will use 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 Luke Theogarajan, professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at UCSB and a member of the NEMONIC team. “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.” 

“Bringing light and electronics together is what UCSB is known for,” said Rod Alferness, dean of the UCSB College of Engineering. “UCSB is the West Coast headquarters of the American Institute for Manufacturing of Photonics [AIM Photonics], where we integrate light-based approaches with electronics to invent and manufacture new telecommunication technologies. We are thrilled that UCSB can now deploy its particular talents in integrated photonic technology toward the brain.”


Artist's interpretation of lightwaves being directed at the brain to monitor activity

UCSB scientists will develop a method for directing light into the brain to monitor currently invisible brain activity.