Skip to content

McKnight awards $600,000 to develop new research tools for neuroscience

The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience will grant $600,000 over two years for the 2015 McKnight Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Awards. Three research projects will each receive $200,000 to expand the range of technologies for studying the brain and its diseases and to make these new technologies available to the field of neuroscience.

Since the technology awards began in 1999, the Endowment Fund has contributed more than $12 million to innovative technologies for neuroscience.

The following awardees were selected by a committee of their peers from among 66 letters of inquiry:

Long Cai, PhD, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, California Institute of Technology, “Deciphering molecular basis of cell identity in the brain by sequencing FISH”

Cynthia Chestek, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, University of Michigan, “High-density 90 μm pitch carbon microthread array to record every neuron in layer 5”

Spencer Smith, PhD, Assistant Professor, Neuroscience Center and Cell Biology & Physiology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Multiphoton imaging for large brain volumes”

“The ability to observe how neurons relate to one another is essential to understanding the physiology of the brain and brain activity,” said David Tank, PhD, chair of the awards committee. He is the Henry Hillman professor in molecular biology and physics, and co-director of the Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University. “This requires innovative research techniques that make it possible to see this activity in the brain at high resolution and density and new methods to identify the cell type of the neurons recorded. These research projects are addressing that need. Ultimately, technological advances like these will lead to better ways to diagnose and treat brain diseases.”

The Endowment Fund is especially interested in work seeking to advance the ability to monitor, manipulate, analyze or model brain function. The awards do not support research based primarily on existing techniques. Technologies developed with McKnight support must ultimately be made available to other scientists.

In addition to Tank, the committee selecting the 2015 awards included Edward Callaway, Loren Looger, Liqun Luo, Markus Meister, H. Sebastian Seung, and Rachel Wilson.

The next round of awards will be announced in October, with letters of intent due December 1, 2015. For more information about the awards, click here.

2015 MCKNIGHT TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATIONS IN NEUROSCIENCE AWARDS

Long Cai, PhD, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, California Institute of Technology

Deciphering molecular basis of cell identity in the brain by sequencing FISH

Cai’s lab has recently developed an innovative, high-powered imaging method based on “single molecule fluorescence in situ hybridization,” or smFISH, which makes it possible to look at genetic information (e.g. RNA) within cells. He now seeks to adapt this method to profile gene expression directly in brains. The experiment will involve using sequential FISH (seqFISH) to measure the activity of more than 100 genes at once in brain slices, preserving the same high resolution. Cai plans to apply seqFISH to identify distinct types of hippocampal neurons via a barcoding system, with the goal of understanding how cells are organized in the brain. Long term, he hopes to understand how many different cell types there are in the brain and how their gene expression changes in disease models. The McKnight award will enable him to explore collaboration with neuroscientists for potential applications.

Cynthia Chestek, PhD, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering, University of Michigan

High-density 90 μm pitch carbon microthread array to record every neuron in layer 5

Chestek’s lab is seeking to develop a means of recording and visualizing healthy, interconnected, active neurons over a span of time at greater density than ever before. It is currently possible to record only a small percentage of neurons at a time within the same circuit, and inserting the electrodes can be damaging. Building on previous experiments in which one of her students, Paras Patel, was involved, Chestek uses minuscule carbon thread electrodes that cause little disruption to the underlying circuit. The next phase is to record neurons in a rat brain from an array of these carbon threads, or channels, at once, and then to slice the brain to visualize the entire circuit. Her goal is to achieve a 64-channel array that can be observed at a high density using a conventional neuroscience connector. This would enable anyone in the field to record many more channels with less damage to the brain. The project will enable Chestek’s lab to try multiple manufacturing methods to make large-scale devices inexpensively.

Spencer Smith, PhD, Assistant Professor, Neuroscience Center and Cell Biology & Physiology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Multiphoton imaging for large brain volumes

Unlike many other types of cells, neurons have a remarkable degree of autonomy. Single neurons act together in complex ways to shape thoughts and behaviors. But it is tremendously difficult to study this process because we lack appropriate tools to observe these interactions. Multiphoton imaging, which can resolve individual neurons from millimeters away, appears to be the path forward. In previous research with two-photon microscopy, Spencer’s lab developed optical technology to view individual neurons firing in the mouse brain over an area of 1.4 millimeters; his team then expanded the range to a span of 3.5 millimeters. Now he is seeking to build a custom optical system to gain access to 1 million neurons (about one-fifth of the neurons in the mouse neocortex) while retaining the ability to observe neurons individually. By making it possible to image neural activity across large brain volumes, the technology has significant potential to advance neuroscience research.

Topic: The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience, Technology Awards

July 2015