NEWS | September 30, 2014

UC Davis neuroscientists receive prestigious NIH BRAIN Initiative Awards

Awards announced today by NIH to advance knowledge of the structure and function of the brain


Two UC Davis research teams developing transformational technologies to understand the dynamics of the neural circuitry underlying behavior and cognition have received awards from the federal Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a presidential grand challenge enterprise.

Lin Tian  Lin Tian

The awards were announced at a news conference today by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins. One team is led by principal investigator Kit Lam, professor and chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine and director of the Center for Biophotonics, and James Trimmer, professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior. The other team is led by Lin Tian, assistant professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine.

Tian also is a recipient of an NIH Director's New Innovator Program award, announced today, for her research to unpack how neuronal circuitry is linked to learning, memory and behavior. The awards are granted to support exceptionally creative new investigators who propose highly innovative projects that have the potential for unusually high impact. Together, the two BRAIN Initiative grants and the five-year New Innovator award to Tian total more than $5.6 million.

The announcement highlights the newest awards to UC Davis investigators from the BRAIN Initiative. Two UC Davis research teams recently were awarded National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) awards to develop new tools and theories for neuroscience research under the BRAIN Initiative umbrella. The 2014 EAGER grants were among 36 to innovative researchers nationwide.

The BRAIN Initiative seeks to accelerate the development and application of innovative technologies to produce a dynamic new picture of the brain and its functioning, showing how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact, to produce opportunities for exploring how the brain records, processes, utilizes, stores and retrieves vast quantities of information; and to enable the search for new therapies for neurologically based disorders.

The NIH announced awards to more than 100 investigators in 15 states and several countries who will work to develop new tools and technologies to understand neural circuit function and capture a dynamic view of the brain in action.

“The human brain is the most complicated biological structure in the known universe. We’ve only just scratched the surface in understanding how it works — or, unfortunately, doesn’t quite work when disorders and disease occur,” Collins said. “There’s a big gap between what we want to do in brain research and the technologies available to make exploration possible."

"These initial awards are part of a 12-year scientific plan focused on developing the tools and technologies needed to make the next leap in understanding the brain. This is just the beginning of an ambitious journey and we’re excited about the possibilities,” he said.

Lam’s research received a three-year, approximately $2.1 million award to develop a novel voltage sensor that can probe the electrical signals of hundreds and thousands of neurons in one large brain region. The technology is based on a toolbox of genetically encoded peptides that can activate fluorescence of organic dyes to report the activation status of voltage-gated ion channels.

Kit Lam © UC Regents
Kit Lam

Real-time tracking of such brain functions in individual brain cells in live animals will contribute greatly to the understanding of the dynamics of neural circuitry, Lam said. Altered neuromodulator dynamics have been implicated in such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and addiction. Lam's collaborators include Tian, Jon Sack and Vladimir Yarov-Yarovoy of the Department of Physiology and Membrane Biology.

“I am delighted that our multi-disciplinary team of five laboratories from across UC Davis is among the recipients of these prestigious BRAIN Initiative awards,” Lam said. “This will allow our team to develop biophotonic tools that can help decipher the secrets of brain function.”

Tian’s award will fund her efforts to leverage new tools to study molecular mechanisms of neurological disorders at a system level in order to empower the search for novel therapies.

Her BRAIN Initiative award will examine neuromodulation and develop state-of-the-art sensors that will facilitate non-invasive, precise, direct and continual measurement of neuromodulators at both the synaptic and circuit levels in live, model organisms. Tian’s exploration is funded at a total of approximately $1.15 million over three years as a collaborative effort with Loren Looger of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Tian’s UC Davis collaborators include W. Martin Usrey, professor, Center for Neuroscience and Sebastian Wachsmann of the Center for Biophotonics.

"Our cross-institution collaboration will leverage the unique resources at both institutions to provide a dynamic environment for researchers to communicate and address the most challenging problems in neuroscience," Tian said.

Tian's NIH Director’s New Innovator Award provides approximately $2.35 million over five years to fund the development of a toolbox of optical sensors to better access the activities of synapses in animal models. 

The two EAGER awards each total approximately $300,000 over two years for a combined total of $600,000. They went to:

Karen Zito, associate professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior at the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences and Center for Neuroscience, who, working with Tian, received an EAGER grant to develop and implement new fluorescent probes to map the function of individual connections (synapses) between nerve cells in the brain. These probes will enable monitoring of the dynamic function of brain circuits as they change in response to a specific task or process.

W. Martin Usrey and Ron Mangun, distinguished professor, dean of social sciences and founder of the Center for Mind and Brain, received an EAGER award to develop a new strategy that combines multiple brain imaging and monitoring methods including electrophysiology, magnetic resonance and optical imaging to analyze brain activity. The aim is to develop tools that can show both the structure of brain circuits and how they function over time.

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