UCSF Neuroscientists Score Well in NIH’s First BRAIN Initiative Grants

Diverse projects will explore brain imaging and recording, genetics and cell types involved in development

By Pete Farley

Five UCSF neuroscientists have received research grants in the highly competitive first wave of National Institutes of Health (NIH) awards to support President Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative.

The grants were announced at The National Press Club in Washington, DC on September 30, 2014 by Francis Collins, MD, PhD, NIH director; Story Landis, PhD, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Thomas Insel, MD, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH); and Cornelia Bargmann, PhD, Torsten N. Wiesel Professor at The Rockefeller University and BRAIN multi-council working group member.

“We are at a critical juncture for brain research,” said Landis, “and these audacious projects are from some of the brightest researchers in neuroscience collaborating with physicists and engineers.”

The four projects funded by the awards to UCSF scientists aim to advance the technology used to create images of brain structure and record its activity, to better understand how gene expression is regulated in brain cells, and to use cell-sorting techniques to identify every type of cell in the brain at different stages of its development.

Professor of Physiology Loren Frank, PhD, who is representing UCSF today at a White House conference where new federal and private sector commitments to the BRAIN Initiative will be unveiled, received a $2.5 million grant to lead a collaborative project with Vanessa Tolosa, PhD, of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. With industry partners Intan Technologies and SpikeGadgets, Frank and Tolosa are constructing brain-recording devices and software that will allow researchers to obtain and analyze signals from more than 1,000 separate channels.

Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, director of UCSF’s Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research, heads up a team that will receive up to $4.8 million to identify every type of cell in the developing human brain. The researchers, who recently demonstrated that large-scale cell surveys can be done much more efficiently and cheaply than was previously thought possible, will use the latest technologies to analyzing gene activity in individual cells.

John Rubenstein, MD, PhD, the Nina Ireland Distinguished Professor in Child Psychiatry, will join UCSF colleague Vikaas Sohal, MD, PhD, the Staglin Family/IMHRO Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, in a $428,000 project to study “enhancers,” tiny genetic regions that affect how genes are expressed, in a type of brain cell called median ganglionic eminence, or MGE, cells. Rubinstein and Sohal have shown in previous research that MGE cells, which inhibit the action of other brain cells, are important in a range of neurological and psychiatric diseases.

UCSF’s Pratik Mukherjee, MD, PhD, professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, is one of the principal investigators on a UC Berkeley-administered grant to advance the spatial resolution of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), with the goal of increasing the detail in brain images more than 30 times over today's most powerful MRI scanners. David Feinberg, PhD, a UC Berkeley adjunct professor of neuroscience, along with Mukherjee and collaborators at Harvard University and Duke University, will receive $1.4 million over three years.

Announced in 2013 by President Obama, the $100 million public-private BRAIN Initiative was launched to map the brain to gain greater insight on how we think, learn and remember, and to better understand and treat diseases ranging from autism to schizophrenia. “How do the billions of cells in our brain control our thoughts, feelings, and movements? That’s ultimately what the BRAIN Initiative is about. Understanding this will greatly help us meet the rising challenges that brain disorders pose for the future health of the nation,” said NIMH Director Insel.

“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,” said NIH Director Collins. “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.”

UCSF is the nation’s leading university exclusively focused on health. Now celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding as a medical college, UCSF is dedicated to transforming health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy; a graduate division with world-renowned programs in the biological sciences, a preeminent biomedical research enterprise and two top-tier hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco.