Bold New Brain Research in Neuroengineering, Brain-Inspired Design and Individuality

August 12, 2015

Duke researcher receives one of 16 new awards totaling $13.1 million as part of the National Science Foundation’s support for integrative, fundamental brain research and The BRAIN Initiative

How does sleep affect individual memories? How do brain cells connect to form meaningful networks? How is a word like “chair” conceptualized in the mind?

To support potentially transformative research in neural and cognitive systems, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded 16 grants to multidisciplinary teams from across the U.S., including Duke University’s Yiyang Gong.

Each award brings together scientists and engineers from diverse fields to investigate a brain-related mystery. The awards fall within two themes: neuroengineering and brain-inspired concepts and designs, and individuality and variation. Each provides up to $1 million over two-to-four years.

“These new projects will explore big, exciting ideas in neuroscience, to push hard against the boundaries of what we know,” said Betty Tuller, NSF program director in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate, who will help oversee the awards.

Gong’s research project is titled, “Real-time optical readout and control of population neural activity with cellular resolution.”

Understanding neural function requires examining specific subsets of the vast numbers of neurons in the brain. Recently developed optogenetics tools, such as optogenetic stimulation and calcium imaging, deliver engineered genes to targeted neural populations and use light to manipulate or measure neural activity.  

However, current optogenetic tools lack the spatiotemporal resolution to causally study many individual neurons in parallel on fast time scales. Gong’s project will try to integrate the design and implementation of optical and genetic tools to greatly refine the scale of investigating neural activity. The end goal is to allow researchers to directly explore how neural activity patterns of many individual neurons in one brain region drive downstream neural activity.