NSF Awards EAGER Grants to Beckman Researchers

Two Beckman research teams have received Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to enable new technologies to better understand how complex behaviors emerge from the activity of brain circuits.

One grant project entitled “Spatially-Resolved In Vivo Optogenetic Stimulation and Imaging Platform,” is led by principal investigator Stephen Boppart, head of the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory at the Beckman and full-time faculty member in the Bioimaging Science and Technology Group, and joined by Justin Rhodes, full-time faculty member in the NeuroTech Group. Martha Gillette, affiliate faculty member in the NeuroTech Group, is the principal investigator on a project titled “Multiscale dynamics and emergent properties of suprachiasmatic circuits in real time.”

Boppart and Rhodes plan to use optogenetics, a rapidly developing field that enables light-activated switching and control of cells, most commonly neurons. The team will use implanted imaging fiber bundles that will enable in vivo imaging as well as spatially controlled optical stimulation and optical feedback of large-area neural circuits. The research offers the potential for controlling the light stimulus and enhancing specificity in the control of neural circuits.

“The BRAIN initiative has challenged us to develop novel neurotechnologies that will push the limits for interrogating the living brain at the cellular level. Our Beckman Institute and the collaborative expertise here in engineering, optics, and neuroscience gives us the perfect combination of physical and intellectual resources to push these limits,” said Boppart.

Part of the project revolves around outreach—they plan to highlight their new ideas and technology at the Beckman and Engineering Open Houses, as well as integrate the methods into Boppart’s undergraduate courses.

Gillette’s project plans to bring together neuroscientists, engineers, and chemists from across campus, to develop and use newly created, complementary technologies that will non-invasively control, measure, and analyze brain network dynamics and change in real time. Their hope is to examine how neurons in the brain are activated in response to experiences, in order to see how they cause behavioral changes and subsequent activities of the neurons, also known as brain plasticity.

Gillette will work with Jonathan Sweedler, part-time faculty member in NeuroTech; Gabriel Popescu, full-time faculty member Bioimaging Science and Technology; and John Rogers, full-time faculty member in the 3D Micro- and Nanosystems Group.

“The challenge of understanding the dynamic brain—how it remembers, enables us to move or be moved, to awake and sleep each day of our lives—lies before us. The exceptional  tools we will develop under the BRAIN initiative are possible because of the science and engineering innovation and the collegial spirit at Illinois. They hold tremendous promise for identifying the signatures of neural activity that generate complex behaviors, insights not previously possible,” said Gillette. “These are truly exciting times.” 

Likewise, Gillette’s project has an educational element: training students to merge disciplines such as neuroscience, imaging technology, engineering of new materials for electrodes, and high-resolution analysis of neuron-to-neuron signals.

These projects will contribute to NSF’s growing portfolio of investments in support of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, a multi-agency research effort that seeks to accelerate the development of new neurotechnologies that promise to help researchers answer fundamental questions about how the brain works.

Each award is for $300,000 over a two-year period.