Three brain research teams awarded $4 million from BRAIN Initiative

Forrest Milburn

After primarily researching rodents, Boris Zemelman and his research teams can now begin studying how neurons communicate in mammals with larger brains that are more closely related to humans.

Zemelman, an assistant professor of neuroscience, is a part of the three research teams that were recently awarded a total of $4 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health. The three teams are all looking to expand the use of optogenetics — using light to manipulate neurons in animals — as well the use of other tools.

“The point is to do something in an intact brain in a living animal or patient, and that’s really hard,” Zemelman said. “The brain is really complicated, and without all these tricks, we wouldn’t be able to very much at all. … This allows us to get some kind of control over the thing.”

The three grants are a part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, which President Barack Obama launched in September 2014 to develop new techniques for mapping the brain.

“The new funding funds projects that are a little more higher risk and have to do with understanding the brain at a circuit level,” Nicholas Priebe, one of Zemelman’s colleagues, said.

Priebe leads one of the research teams aiming to expand the use of optogenetics to primates with help from viruses. The second team will use a drug rather than light to activate neurons, and the third will chemically tag neurons, enabling researchers to look at memories.

Zemelman works with colleagues in the Department of Neuroscience, Department of Molecular Biosciences and Chemistry Department.

Zemelman received another grant — for developing research tools for the human brain — in September for his research with optogenetics from the UT System BRAIN Initiative. Zemelman said the initial grant paved the way for the NIH grants his teams were awarded.

Tom Jacobs, chairman of the UT System BRAIN review committee, said that the next round of seed grant recipients will be announced in early 2016, with some possibly going toward past applicants.

“[We’re] hoping that some of the ideas that we heard in the first competition will rise to the top and can fund it also,” Jacobs said. “That’s another opportunity … to allow scientists within UT to further compete for these funds by bringing their best ideas forward.”