Date September 20, 2017
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Brown neuroscientists earn fellowships to study biomedical technologies

The Pew Charitable Trusts will support Gilad Barnea in a project to apply his neural circuit tracing method to tracking the spread of cancer, while a National Science Foundation fellowship will enable Scott Cruikshank to master an advanced technology for controlling brain cells with light.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With national fellowships awarded on Sept. 20, two Brown University neuroscience faculty members have gained new support for their study of innovative biomedical technologies.

Gilad Barnea, associate professor of neuroscience, and Dr. Ben Stanger of the University of Pennsylvania will collaborate via a fellowship from the Pew Charitable Trusts Biomedical Programs Innovation Fund to apply Barnea’s new neural circuit tracing technology to cancer research.

Meanwhile, Scott Cruikshank, associate professor of neuroscience (research), will use a fellowship from the National Science Foundation to travel to the University of Michigan, where he’ll master an emerging method of controlling neurons with light and then return to teach the method to colleagues in Rhode Island.

Applying a neurotechnology to cancer

With prior Pew funding and support from other sources, including the Brown Institute for Brain Science Innovation Fund, Barnea has been developing a novel means of tracing entire functional circuits in the nervous systems of fruit flies. The technology involves engineering an artificial molecular-signaling pathway into neurons that is triggered with a specific protein. Cells that join in a circuit share the protein where they connect, causing the circuit to uniquely stand out.

In the new project, Barnea and Stanger, a cancer expert and fellow Pew alumnus, will share a $200,000 award to see whether Barnea’s method can be applied to tracking the spread of tumors in mice. They are among only six pairs to earn this competitive new award from Pew.

“The idea is to generate a mouse in which the components for the signaling pathway will be everywhere in the body and only the tumor cells will be modified to express the protein that activates the signaling,” he said. “Once we introduce the tumor cells in the mouse and they metastasize, we will have a record of all the cells with which the tumor cells came in contact.”

If successful, Barnea said, the project could give scientists a new way to gain insights about how cancer finds or creates hospitable environments in new tissues and what effects cells undergo when tumors move into their neighborhood.

"This could lead to new types of medical interventions in cancer," Barnea said.

Illuminating the brain

To understand how the brain allows us to sense, perceive, think and learn, Cruikshank studies the circuitry that connects two brain regions — the thalamus and the cortex. He uses a variety of methods, including electrical recordings from cells, to understand the circuits, but an increasingly vital tool is optogenetics, which allows scientists to genetically engineer neurons to turn on or off when exposed to pulses of light. Optogenetics, however, continues to evolve.

Last weekend, Cruikshank packed his bags for Ann Arbor, Michigan, where with $162,000 of support from his new NSF Research Infrastructure Improvement fellowship, he’ll learn an advanced form of the method under development there. The addition of “spatial light modulation” (SLM) allows for especially fine-grained control of specific numbers of cells. That will allow Cruikshank to ask questions such as how many neurons must be active in a somatosensory corticothalamic circuit to produce a particular sensation or behavior. The emerging technology may also work in a “closed loop” fashion, in which the system can automatically increase or reduce light stimulation based on how well neurons are responding.

Because these methods are likely to be just as exciting for other neuroscientists, Cruikshank’s fellowship also calls for him to share his newfound expertise when he returns to Rhode Island.

"The precise neural control provided by spatial light modulation could create pivotal opportunities for understanding neural function,” Cruikshank said. “If we can successfully implement a closed-loop version of SLM, it will be a game changer.”