Computer science researchers get NIH grant for brain networks research

December 14, 2005

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Researchers in the Brain Networks Laboratory at Texas A&M University have received nearly $1 million from the National Institutes of Health for their work exploring and understanding the complexity and scaling properties of the circuit structure of the brain. The $966,000 grant is from the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and Dr. Yoonsuck Choe, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science in the Dwight Look College of Engineering, leads the research team. Co-investigators are Dr. Bruce McCormick, professor and founding director of the Brain Networks Lab; Dr. John Keyser, assistant professor of computer science; and Dr. Louise Abbott, associate professor of veterinary integrative biosciences in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. Stanford University's Dr. Stephen Smith is a project collaborator. The researchers are trying to understand the "computation," the diverse processes going on in the brain. This particular grant is to bridge sets of data from three different scales -- nanoscale (Stanford), microscale (Texas A&M) and macroscale (University of California, Los Angeles) -- to provide an accurate picture of how the mouse brain is wired and how properties at each scale carry over to other scales. The Texas A&M team uses the Knife-Edge Scanning Microscope (KESM), the U.S.-patented light microscope that McCormick invented, to slice and image a mouse brain into 300-nanometer-thick sections. The microscope scans the slice as it cuts, yielding a stack of two-dimensional images of the cut sections, resulting in massive amounts of three-dimensional data representing the microstructure of the mouse brain. "The KESM allows us to get a good global connectivity map of the mouse brain -- how things are wired," Choe said. "We can determine building blocks of the brain network by comparing subnetworks to other similar networks that have known properties." At Stanford, Smith is using an analogous instrument to the KESM, the Serial Block Face Scanning Electron Microscope (SBF-SEM), to chart brain networks on the nanoscale level. The SBF-SEM provides high-resolution, full three-dimensional data for a small volume of brain tissue, needed to determine exact places where neurons connect. Choe said the two research teams' data are complementary: The Stanford team's microscope provides a higher resolution and a higher magnification than the Texas A&M team's microscope, but the KESM provides a global view of the structure of the brain that the SBF-SEM cannot. Choe's team will work toward combining Stanford's nanoscale data, Texas A&M's microscale data and UCLA's Mouse Atlas Project's macroscale view of mouse brain anatomy. "We need to find out how to bridge the gap between the data sets," Choe said. "If we can find a rule to do that at one level, then we can apply that to generate a full dataset based on the sparse data from a particular level in a statistically sound manner." The researchers are now studying brains of mice, but hope one day to extend their work to the human brain. "The more we learn about the human brain, the better we are able to cure what ails it and to develop more advanced algorithms mimicking the neural process," Choe said. "Building an understanding of the brain's development, function, disorders and regeneration will depend on understanding how the brain is wired and how the different scales interrelate." The research is administered by the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES), the engineering research agency of the State of Texas and a member of The Texas A&M University System. Choe, McCormick and Keyser are researchers in the Computer Science Division of TEES.

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