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Pitt and CMU researchers developing device to hear how neurons communicate

PITTSBURGH (October 29, 2019) … The brain is a complex organ full of neurons that work together to help us move, feel, think, and more. A multidisciplinary group from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University is working to expand the amount of information researchers can receive from a neural interface device and received two grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for their collaborative effort.

The team, headed by Maysam Chamanzar at Carnegie Mellon, plans to develop an all-in-one implantable device that can simultaneously record neural activity, identify the cell type, and determine cell function through chemical stimulation. More information about these cells may help researchers determine how they communicate and help our bodies function.

Xinyan Tracy Cui, professor of bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, will lead the research at Pitt with a $293,138 award. She runs the Neural Tissue/Electrode Interface and Neural Tissue Engineering Lab, where they develop new engineering tools to study and clinically control the interface between tissue and implanted neural devices.

“There are currently methods that researchers can use to identify cell types, mostly using imaging, but we wanted to create an innovation that combines imaging capability with electrical recording, all on a small probe,” said Cui. “Additionally, we’re incorporating the focal chemical stimulation technology that was developed in my lab to be able to perturb the neurons that we’re imaging at a very local level and identify the function of those neurons within the network.”

This novel device will give researchers more information and allow them to avoid the more invasive methods used to determine cell type.

“In the past, researchers had to open the brain to a large field of view for a microscope or use a sort of endoscopic device to determine cell type. Unfortunately, these methods cause a lot of damage and prevents you from continuously monitor neural activity over a long period of time,” said Cui. “Our device will not only be less invasive, but it will also be coupled with additional technology that will provide more dimensions of information on brain function.”

Cui will collaborate with William Stauffer, assistant professor of neurobiology at Pitt, whose lab investigates the neurocomputational roles for different neuron types during learning and decision making.

“Understanding how different types of neurons participate in, and contribute to, the ‘neural ensembles' that orchestrate behaviors is a principal goal of neuroscience,” said Stauffer. “This combined neural interface will permit recording of cell type-specific neural activity in awake behaving animals. Thus, this device will add a new dimension to behavioral neurophysiology experiments and move us a step closer to understanding how the brain generates behavior.”

Maysam Chamanzar, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, is leading this collaborative project. Chamanzar’s lab focuses on designing and implementing next generation multimodal (Acousto-opto-electrical) neural interfaces to understand the neural basis of brain function and realize functional brain-machine interfaces. He is leading the design and implementation of the neural interface technology in this project. 

“In this project, we seek to develop a novel neural interface technology consisting of high density recording electrodes and an array of flexible optical waveguides for simultaneous electrical recording and optical imaging of neurons,” says Chamanzar. “The flexible polymer waveguides will be designed in the shape of a small, form-factor array to enable endoscopic optical imaging of the recording volume. Some of the electrodes will be modified to enable closed-loop localized chemical stimulation in synchrony with electrical stimulation and optical imaging.”

The NSF has awarded grants totaling $17 million to 12 projects under its Integrative Strategies for Understanding Neural and Cognitive Systems (NCS) program. The awards contribute to NSF's investments in support of Understanding the Brain and the BRAIN Initiative, a coordinated research effort across federal agencies that seeks to accelerate the development of new neurotechnologies.

“The complexities of brain and behavior pose fundamental questions in many areas of science and engineering, requiring expansive perspectives to find answers,” said NSF Program Director Kurt Thoroughman. “The NCS program makes possible innovative integration within and across disciplines, supporting innovative, integrative, boundary-crossing projects that – at their best – map out new research frontiers. NCS awards are bold and risky, and they transcend the perspectives and approaches typical of disciplinary research efforts.”


Contact: Leah Russell