The Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute was founded on the principle that progress in neuroscience research would be best served by bringing together faculty from diverse disciplines. The launch of the Berkeley Brain Initiative has amplified our multidisciplinary efforts, by bringing our faculty together to define new ambitious aims and initiate collaborations between disciplines and with neighboring universities and industry partners. These efforts are coming to fruition. In the past year multidisciplinary neuroscience research has blossomed particularly in the following areas.

Novel technologies for the investigation of the brain

PrintThis year, our engineering and neuroscience faculty have created a working prototype for Neural Dust, a wireless neural recording device that is so small that thousands to millions of these “dust particles” can be implanted in the brain at once without damage, each enabling the activity of a small number of neurons to be recorded. Remarkably, Neural Dust is both powered and “read out” by ultrasound, which is well tolerated in the clinical setting. Neural Dust will one day be used to control prosthetic limbs and treat epilepsy and mood disorders.

Our physicists, engineers, computational scientists and psychologists are poised to break an important resolution barrier in Magnetic Resonance Imaging, enabling researchers to image the structure and function of the human cortex at the level of the brain’s fundamental microcircuits: the cortical column. This breakthrough will make it possible to decipher brain processes as never before and reveal what goes right and what goes wrong with cognitive function, memory and language in normal settings and in disease.

Our chemists, biophysicists, biologists and engineers have developed new chemical and genetic optical sensors and imaging systems to precisely measure and manipulate the activity of select neurons. These tools will be key to understanding brain development and unlocking the neural code underlying sensory perception, decision-making, and complex behavior.

We have been sharing our technological advances with the wider neuroscience community. Our first annual course in 4D Advanced Microscopy of Brain Circuits at the Zeiss Berkeley Brain Microscopy Innovation Center was a success, and we are now accepting applications for our second iteration, to be held May 21-27, 2017.

Computation and theory of brain function

Explosive growth in computation at Berkeley has enabled major advances understanding how the meaning of language is represented in the brain, creating a detailed semantic map of the human cortex. Major developments in neural algorithms have produced a great leap in our ability to interpret neural signals and bring brain-machine interface devices to a new level. We hosted two events to open discussions with our larger community about applying the principles of neuroscience to the creation of sophisticated software and hardware: a Kavli Symposium on the Theory of Neural Computation, and the Neuro-Inspired Computational Elements Workshop.

Growth of the multidisciplinary neuroscience community

Our community has grown substantially with the addition of outstanding faculty to the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute. This year we welcomed Anne Collins, Chunlei Liu, Kristofer Bouchard, Michel Maharbiz, and Austin Roorda to our group.

David Foster will be joining us as Professor of Psychology in January 2017. Foster is coming to us from Johns Hopkins, and is known for his studies on how spatial memory and navigation toward rewards are encoded by neural ensembles in the hippocampus.

Na Ji and Eric Betzig will join the Departments of Physics and Molecular and Cell Biology in the summer of 2017. They are both coming to us from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Research Campus. Ji is known for the development of optical imaging technology, especially advances in the use of adaptive optics for the study of neural circuit activity. This will be a return home for Ji, who received her PhD in Chemistry from UC Berkeley. Betzig was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing super-resolution microscopy, PALM, to image subcellular structures and disease-related proteins. His latest invention, the lattice light-sheet microscope, brings the ability to see very small things to large segments of the intact brain.

This extraordinary class of new members in the neuroscience community catapult Berkeley to the top worldwide in brain imaging and the advanced analysis of neural circuits and brain processing.

A powerful metric of the success of our research efforts has been the enormous success of our young faculty in winning prestigious early career awards and funding from the Federal BRAIN Initiative. Our focus now is to enable the next wave of progress with a major fundraising campaign to create new research capabilities and facilities, hire additional top-notch faculty, and expand support for students and postdoctoral fellows.

ehud_isacoff_2016_headshotWith appreciation,

Ehud Isacoff, PhD
Director, Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute
Evan Rauch Chair in Neuroscience
& Professor of Neurobiology, Molecular and Cell Biology Department