University of Minnesota receives $16M to uncover 'wiring diagram' of the brain

CSE Professor Taner Akkin is part of the team of scientists involved in the project

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (09/26/2023) — The University of Minnesota has received a $16 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative to support the groundbreaking project of unraveling the mysteries of the brain's ‘wiring diagram.’ Using cutting-edge techniques, this research aims to discover how the brain's neurons are connected and communicate with each other.

The project, led by the University of Minnesota Medical School, aims to better understand how complex neural pathways generate human behaviors. The focus is mapping connections between specific brain regions responsible for higher-level functions like attention and decision-making. Traditional methods for this kind of mapping have limitations, so the team will combine advanced techniques to bridge the gap.

"BRAIN CONNECTS follows in the footsteps of the Human Connectome Project. However, we're taking it further by using advanced MRI together with other emerging tools that rely on optical imaging and cell labeling techniques. This approach will provide us with a more detailed and much clearer picture of the brain's circuits,” explained contact principal investigator and Medical School Professor Kamil Ugurbil, Ph.D.

University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering Professor Taner Akkin, Ph.D., is part of the research team and developed specialized equipment that will be used to reveal the connectivity of the brain. The optical coherence scanner is a label-free tool for fundamental research into the anatomical and connectional architecture of the brain that incorporates Polarization-Sensitive Optical Coherence Tomography (PS-OCT) and a tissue slicer.

“Current techniques lack either the resolution or the ability to scale across and map out large regions of the entire brain, information that is essential for unraveling the mysteries of this incredible organ,” said John Ngai, Ph.D., director of the NIH BRAIN Initiative. “Following years of careful planning and input from the scientific community, BRAIN CONNECTS — which represents our third, large-scale transformative project — aims to develop the tools needed to obtain brain-wide connectivity maps at unprecedented levels of detail and scale.”

“The NIH is making an important investment in uncovering one of the most important features of brain anatomy — its wiring diagram, or how neurons are set up to talk to each other. In future years, this will pay major dividends in terms of neuromodulatory treatments of brain disorders,” said Sarah Heilbronner, Ph.D., principal investigator and associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine.

The researchers' goal is to create accurate wiring diagrams using a multi-modal, cross-species, multi-scale approach. This will provide crucial insights into brain connectivity and its impact on cognition, behavior and disease.

In addition to Ugurbil, Akkin, and Heilbronner, the team of scientists involved in this project includes Jan Zimmerman, Ph.D., Damien Fair, Ph.D., Christophe Lenglet, Ph.D., and Essa Yacoub, Ph.D., at the U of M Medical School; Stamatios Sotiropoulos, Ph.D. at University of Nottingham; Guoqiang Bi, Ph.D. at Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology; Franco Pestilli, Ph.D. at University of Texas Austin; Karla Miller, Ph.D. and Saad Jbabdi, Ph.D. at Oxford University; Kurt Schilling, Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University; Partha Mitra, Ph.D' at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories; and Clay Reid, Ph.D. at Allen Institute.

For next steps, the team will focus on advancing treatments for brain disorders. Numerous psychiatric and neurological conditions involve disrupted brain connectivity. Understanding and addressing this connectivity issue is an essential step to implementing effective solutions.

This grant leverages the knowledge and resources in advanced microscopy through the University of Minnesota's Medical Discovery Team (MDT) on Optical Imaging and Brain Science.

This research was supported by the NIH BRAIN Initiative UM1NS132207. 

Related Links