Edward S. Boyden, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and NEI grantee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, has been honored with a 2013 Brain Prize. Each year, the Denmark-based Grete Lundbeck European Brain Research Foundation awards the prize—and a sum of 1 million euros—to a scientist or group of scientists who have made influential contributions to brain research.
This year, Dr. Boyden shares the prize with five other scientists for developing the revolutionary approach known as optogenetics, which allows researchers to control neural activity with flashes of light. The approach relies on channelrhodopsins (ChRs), which are photosensitive proteins that help certain bacteria and algae move toward light. When ChR genes are delivered to neurons, they render them light-responsive, too—except the light triggers electrical currents that can cause the neurons to fire or stop firing. The scientists first reported the approach in 2005, when Dr. Boyden was a postdoctoral fellow with Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D., of Stanford University in California. Since then, it has been used in dozens of studies to explore how particular neurons behave within neural circuits.
In addition to continued research in optogenetics, Dr. Boyden is developing another potentially game-changing approach. Called autopatching, it involves using a robot to simultaneously examine a single brain cell’s anatomy, gene activity, and electrical activity patterns. The project (R01 EY023173) is funded through NIH’s Single Cell Analysis initiative and is administered by NEI. It is a collaborative effort that includes Craig Forest, Ph.D., at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and Hongkui Zeng, Ph.D., at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.
So far, the team has developed a prototype autopatching robot that enables them to monitor brain cells in living mice. The ultimate goal is to understand the billions of neurons—and by some estimates, thousands of neuronal types—that make up the human brain. The researchers hope to better define those cell types, their unique functions, and how these functions change in development, aging, and disease.