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NSF awards Cornell $9M grant for neurotech research hub

By Eric Reinhardt


ITHACA, N.Y. — The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Cornell University a five-year, $9 million grant for a neurotech-research hub at the school.

Cornell neurotech researchers
Cornell University will use a five-year, $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a neurotech-research hub at the school. The principal investigators for the Cornell Neurotechnology NeuroNex Hub are from (left to right) Chris Xu, professor of applied and engineering physics; Joseph Fetcho, professor of neurobiology and behavior; Nilay Yapici, assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior; Chris Schaffer, associate professor of biomedical engineering; and Mert Sabuncu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and of biomedical engineering. (Photo credit: Dave Burbank / University Photography / Cornell University website)

Cornell plans to develop “new tools” which researchers will use to provide them with an “unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of thebrain,” the university said in a news release.

The school will use the grant funding to establish the Cornell Neurotechnology NeuroNex Hub.

It’ll focus on researching, developing and disseminating new optical-imaging tools for noninvasive recording of neural activity in animals.

It will also establish the laboratory for innovative neurotechnology at Cornell, where engineers and biologists will collaborate on developing and testing the tools.


Hub objective

The hub aims to “overcome” three barriers that neuroscientists face, including deep imaging of intact brains.

Multiphoton microscopy, which was invented at Cornell, has allowed neuroscientists to record the activities of individual neurons up to approximately 1 millimeter deep into a mouse brain.

However, the mouse brain is about 8 millimeters thick, and even thicker in larger animals, Cornell said. The hub will optimize a recently developed three-photon microscope and focus on making the tool “widely” available.

In addition, the imaging of large and multiple neural regions is also seen as a barrier, according to the Cornell release.

The best whole nervous-system images have come from laval zebrafish, but existing imaging tools “cannot holistically” view larger brains, even at the scale of an adult zebrafish.

Using a combination of two- and three-photon microscopy, the hub will develop a new tool to simultaneously observe neurons in different regions of the mouse brain and the spinal cord.

The third barrier is faster imaging for volumetric recording.

To record large numbers of neurons, neurologists work to obtain high-speed imaging through the development of an adaptive-illumination microscope in which the sample becomes an integral part of the imaging system.

By leveraging prior knowledge of the sample, researchers will use optimum laser exposure to record the activities from a large number of neurons.

Within five years, the hub aims to integrate the three tools to demonstrate the “deepest, high-resolution, large-scale neural activity recording ever achieved.”

“It is well recognized that neurotechnology development is essential to push the envelope of neuroscience. At the Cornell NeuroNex Hub, we will create, optimize and then disseminate the new tools that will enable biologists to attack some of the impossible problems in neuroscience,” Chris Xu, professor of applied and engineering physics, and principal investigator for the hub, said in the Cornell release.

Using the technology, biologists hope to explore unanswered questions, such as how animals consciously switch from autonomous locomotion to deliberate limb placement.

The hub is part of the larger Cornell Neurotech program launched with a multimillion-dollar gift from the Mong Family Foundation in 2015 with the same goal of encouraging cross-disciplinary research to develop new tools for neuroscience.

The hub will also educate the next generation of scientists by involving graduate and undergraduate students who will learn to collaborate across such disciplines as biology, computer science, engineering, medicine, and physics.


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