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Two Purdue faculty members win NIH grants for brain research


Two Purdue University researchers have been awarded grants from the National Institutes of Health as part of the NIH's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative.

The Purdue recipients are Meng Cui, an assistant professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Department of Biological Sciences, and Mathew Tantama, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry.

Theirs are among 67 new awards, totaling more than $38 million, announced by NIH in October. The grants were issued to 131 researchers working at 125 institutions in the United States and eight other countries.

Cui, whose grant totals $1.4 million, will lead a research team harnessing the same kind of "adaptive optics" technology used in astronomy for a new imaging system to non-invasively take in-vivo images of the brain's cortex at greater depth than usually possible.

The technology hinges on deformable mirrors that change shape to compensate for light distortion. In astronomy the deformable mirrors are used to compensate for the light distortion caused by the atmosphere, yielding clear images of celestial objects. However, deformable mirrors also can be used to counteract the distortion caused when light passes through biological tissue, Cui said.

"It's a mirror with a surface that can be controlled to change with nanometer accuracy, so it can alter the way light propagates," said Cui, who invented the new imaging system while a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The research focuses on regions of the cortex that are difficult to study using other in-vivo imaging techniques because they do not penetrate deeply enough to see all of the cortex's six layers.

"Each layer has different functions, and some layers talk to other regions of the brain," said Cui, whose research is based at the Bindley Bioscience Center in Purdue's Discovery Park. "Now, most studies are restricted to layers 1-4, but other layers are probably equally or more important."

An ultrafast pulsing laser of infrared light is used to shine through the cortex of research mice with a technique called two-photon microscopy.

Tantama, whose grant totals approximately $450,000, is working to create an optical sensor to detect and follow neuropeptides, molecules involved in cell signaling and communication.

The sensor combines a peptide-binding protein found in bacteria with a fluorescent protein. Because the sensor is made of proteins, it can be encoded in a DNA gene sequence. The gene can be put into the cells of interest, in this case neurons and astrocytes, which will then express the sensor on their surface. When the neuropeptide to which the sensor is tuned binds to it, the fluorescence increases and can be seen under the microscope, he said.

"Pairing an optical probe and a microscope allows us to look at specific signals, track the neuropeptide and better understand how neural circuits work," Tantama said. "We hope to be able to watch living cells communicate in real time by observing the neuropeptide propagate in space and time throughout the brain tissue."

The sensor will be used to study mouse cells grown in cell cultures and will focus on the neuropeptide dynorphin for the study, which he considers a proof-of-concept for the sensor design.

"If this work is successful, it could pave the way for sensors targeted to other important neuropeptides," he said. "A better understanding of how signals in the brain work also helps us understand how things go wrong in disease states, like Parkinson's disease. This is the path to uncovering potential treatments and lessening the devastating impact of neurological disorders."

Tantama is affiliated with Purdue's Center for Integrated Neuroscience. The center is one of the university's Pillars of Excellence in the Life Sciences initiative, a $60 million investment in the life sciences.

The NIH Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative was launced in 2014. The goal is to "revolutionize our ability to understand the human brain by developing new technologies to record and modulate brain circuit activity."

Writers: Emil Venere, 765-494-4709,

Elizabeth Gardner, 765-494-2081,

Sources: Meng Cui, 765-494-5486,

Mathew Tantama, 765-494-5312,

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