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(L-R)Jeff Lichtman, Markus Meister, and Joshua Sanes

A special federal grant for bold, outside-of-the-box biomedical proposals has been awarded to an MCB team with an ambitious plan to map the entire wiring network of the brain, using cutting-edge tools they have developed.

The researchers, led by MCB professors Joshua R. Sanes, Jeff Lichtman, Jeremy R. Knowles Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Markus Meister, Jeff C. Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology received the $8.2 million Transformative Research R01 Award from the director of the National Institutes of Health. All three are members and Sanes is Paul J. Finnegan Director of the Center for Brain Science.

“The NIH Director’s Award programs awards are intended to catalyze giant leaps forward for any area of biomedical research, allowing investigators to go in entirely new directions,” explained James M. Anderson, director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning and Strategic Initiatives, who guides the Common Fund’s High-Risk Research program.

In addition to the three members from MCB, the team includes Sebastian Seung, who is a professor of computational neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sanes explained that mapping the circuits of the brain will help scientists understand how the brain works. “Our team is developing new methods for acquiring and analyzing the huge amounts of data required to map brain circuits,” Sanes said. “This grant will allow us to complete the development of the methods, and apply them to one of the better understood (but still mysterious) circuits, the one in the retina of the eye, which processes visual information.”

The team’s research is focused on the development of new technology that can speed up the process of mapping brain circuits. The challenge in drawing such maps now, is that, due to their small size, neuronal processes and the synapses that connect them must be mapped at very high resolution — typically as small as a single nanometer. The distributed nature of neuronal connectivity, however, means that the maps often cover a range of a millimeter — 1 million nanometers — or more. To reconcile those competing priorities, Lichtman, Meister, and Sanes are developing a technique that combines sectioning, electron microscopic imaging, and reconstruction technologies — that could produce a 1,000-fold increase in the speed of diagramming brain circuits.

As a proof-of-concept test, the team will first reconstruct the retinal circuit of a mouse in its entirety, before later testing the technique on human tissue. Because neural circuits are unique for each individual, the hope is that this technique may be used to trace experiences and learned behaviors, and could potentially shed light on a number of developmental, aging, and behavioral disorders.

Read more about this project on the NIH website

Read more in HARVARDgazette

[November 21st, 2011]

View Jeff Lichtman’s Faculty Profile

View Joshua Sanes’s Faculty Profile