Unlocking the mysteries of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, stroke and traumatic brain injury is at the heart of 11 new projects that have just received $1.1 million in seed funding from the provost and vice president for research.
The MiBrain Initiative, developed in response to a federal call to boost understanding of the complexities of the brain through development of new technologies, challenged U-M faculty to propose innovative, high-risk strategies to study neural circuits, leading to a better understanding of emotions, movement and cellular diversity.
Thirty-one interdisciplinary teams involving 70 scientists across U-M submitted proposals. The 11 chosen will receive $100,000 each to advance their projects. Funding was provided by the Office of the Provost and U-M Office of Research.
“Our faculty are never short of good ideas for innovative research projects,” said Provost Martha Pollack. “These grants will help interdisciplinary faculty groups with the first phase of research; the exploration of a new idea or a new approach to a vexing challenge. The depth and breadth of our faculty — these awards are going to faculty with appointments in 18 different departments — is a foundation of the university’s research excellence and we want to foster its continuation.”
In April 2013, President Barack Obama announced the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. He called on technology companies, scientists inside and outside of academia, and others interested in the field of neuroscience to accelerate the development and application of innovative technologies that could lead to treatments, cures and prevention of brain disorders.
Following that announcement, Pollack’s office organized a group of neuroscientists from various units across campus to discuss a vision for neuroscience education and research at the university. The team called itself the MiBrain Initiative Working Group, and made several recommendations, with seed funding for collaborative and innovative research foremost among them.
“Understanding the workings of the human brain is one of the great interdisciplinary scientific challenges of our time,” said S. Jack Hu, interim vice president for research. “The recipients of these awards highlight not only the breadth of world-class expertise we can bring to bear on this challenge, but also the strong culture of cooperation across disciplines at U-M that will be essential to progress.”
Dr. Huda Akil, who co-chaired the working group along with Dr. Jill Becker (senior research Scientist, Molecular & Behavioral and Neuroscience Institute and professor of psychology and psychiatry), said the proposals all pushed the limits, and were high-risk, high-payoff, ventures.
I’m really happy the neuroscience community was given this opportunity to try out new ideas. The level of response was overwhelming,” said Akil, co-director and research professor, Molecular & Behavioral and Neuroscience Institute, Distinguished University Professor and Quarton Professor of Neurosciences, Department of Psychiatry, noting the diversity of the collaborators.
“Not all players needed to be neuroscientists. We have engineers, physicists, movement scientists and others.”
A picture of this collaboration is the project by Dr. William Stacey and Robert Kennedy, which will seek to better predict the seizures that are a symptom of epilepsy.
Stacey, assistant professor of neurology and of biomedical engineering, has a model for identifying biomarkers of seizures, and has been analyzing epilepsy for years.
Kennedy, a professor of chemistry, has not worked with epilepsy but his bioanalytical chemistry lab is dedicated to using sophisticated instruments and methods to study myriad biological problems impacting health. Together, they will work to identify abnormal brain activity associated with seizures, in an effort to identify signals that indicate when the brain is about to have one.
“This type of pioneering work requires significant time and effort to collect preliminary data. This award will allow us to begin combining our work to identify both voltage and chemical signals of epilepsy,” Stacey said. “This unique combination will provide a powerful opportunity to understand how the brain changes prior to seizures, leading to greater understanding of epilepsy and potentially to treatments that control them.”
Probing to determine how neural circuits interact down to the cellular level is a key goal of both the federal and U-M initiatives, so many of the projects deal with how to develop new technologies to explore the brain further.
One project seeks to develop novel genetic and computational tools to trace and color code tens of thousands of connected neurons in the same circuit. Dawen Cai, assistant professor of cell & developmental biology, Medical School, and biophysics, LSA, and Jason Corso, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science aim to fill what they call a technical gap.
“Identifying subtype and connections of individual neurons in a circuit is the key to understanding how information is processed and propagated in the brain. Currently brain circuits are mapped at low resolution such that molecular and cellular detail of an individual component (neuron) of the network is lacking,” Cai said.
Some teams will find new ways to use more familiar technology to conduct brain exploration.
One will use a new electroencephalography (EEG) system that allows for improved imagery of the brain during walking or running to better diagnose movement disorders associated with Parkinson’s Disease, a stroke and spinal cord injuries.
Another will use a combination of ultrasound waves and magnetic fields to stimulate or inhibit the activity of brain tissue without surgical or pharmacological intervention.
“The main barriers for non-invasive brain stimulation are the ability to penetrate deep into the brain, and the accuracy of the targeting. Fortunately, ultrasound devices can overcome both of those barriers,” said Luis Hernandez-Garcia, research associate professor of biomedical engineering.
“The award will enable us to build and test a model of magneto-mechanical brain stimulation. In addition to theoretical work, we will be able to build a prototype device and test our theories in vitro and in vivo,” he said.
Becker said it was “exciting to see the innovative new ideas that emerged from this process.”
“Every one of the funded projects has the potential to lead to exciting new discoveries or technology that will position the teams to successfully compete for external funding,” she said. “Even among the proposals that did not receive funding, some of the investigators indicated that the process of writing the proposal triggered ideas that may lead to new collaborations.
“I think we were successful with this first step and it is evident there is a lot of enthusiasm for more ways to develop cross-disciplinary collaborations among neuroscientists at U-M.”