Caltech Researchers Receive NIH BRAIN Funding

On September 30, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced its first round of funding in furtherance of President Obama's "Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnology"—or BRAIN—Initiative. Included among the 58 funded projects—all of which, according to the NIH, are geared toward the development of "new tools and technologies to understand neural circuit function and capture a dynamic view of the brain in action"—are six projects either led or co-led by Caltech researchers.

The Caltech projects are:

"Dissecting human brain circuits in vivo using ultrasonic neuromodulation"

Doris Tsao, assistant professor of biology
Mikhail Shapiro, assistant professor of chemical engineering

Tsao and Shapiro are teaming up to develop a new technology that both uses ultrasound to map and determine the function of interconnected brain networks and, ultimately, to change neural activity deep within the brain. "This would open new horizons for understanding human brain function and connectivity, and create completely new options for the noninvasive treatment of brain diseases such as intractable epilepsy, depression, and Parkinson's disease," Tsao says. "The key," Shapiro adds, "is to gain a precise understanding of the various mechanisms by which sound waves interact with neurons in the brain so we can use ultrasound to produce very specific neurological effects. We will be able to do this across the full spectrum, from molecules up to large model organisms."

"Modular nanophotonic probes for dense neural recording at single-cell resolution"

Michael Roukes, Robert M. Abbey Professor of Physics, Applied Physics, and Bioengineering
Thanos Siapas, professor of computation and neural systems

Roukes, Siapas, and their colleagues at Columbia University and Baylor College of Medicine propose to build ultra-dense arrays of miniature light-emitting and light-sensing probes using advanced silicon "chip" technology that permits their production en masse. These probes open the new field of integrated neurophotonics, Roukes says, and will permit simultaneous recording of the electrical activity of hundreds of thousands to, ultimately, millions of neurons, with single-cell resolution, in any given region of the brain. "The instrumentation we'll develop will enable us to observe the trafficking of information, in vivo, in brain circuits on an unprecedented scale, and to correlate this activity with behavior," he says.

"Time-Reversal Optical Focusing for Noninvasive Optogenetics"

Changhuei Yang, professor of electrical engineering, bioengineering, and medical engineering
Viviana Gradinaru, assistant professor of biology

Deep-brain stimulation has been used successfully for nearly two decades for the treatment of epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, chronic pain, depression, and other disorders. Current systems rely on electrodes implanted deep within the brain to modify the firing pattern of specific clusters of neurons, bringing them back into a more normal pattern. Yang and Gradinaru are working together on a method that would use only light waves to noninvasively activate light-sensitive molecules and precisely guide the firing of nerves. Biological tissues are opaque due to the scattering of light waves, and that scattering makes it impossible to finely focus a laser beam deep into brain tissue. The researchers hope to use an optical "time-reversal" trick previously developed by Yang to counteract the scattering, allowing light beams to be targeted to specific locations within the brain. "The technology to be developed in this project has the potential for wide-ranging applications, including noninvasive deep brain stimulation and precise incisionless laser surgery," he says.

"Integrative Functional Mapping of Sensory-Motor Pathways"

Michael H. Dickinson, Esther M. and Abe M. Zarem Professor of Bioengineering

As in other animals, locomotion in the fruit fly is a complicated process involving the interplay of sensory systems and motor circuits in the brain. Dickinson and his colleagues hope to decipher just how the brain uses sensory information to guide movements by developing a system to record the activity of large numbers of individual neurons from across the brains of fruit flies, as the flies fly in flight simulator or walk on a treadmill and are simultaneously exposed to various sights and sounds. Understanding sensory–motor integration, he says, should lead to a better understanding of human disorders, including Parkinson's disease, stroke, and spinal cord injury, and aid in the design and optimization of robotic prosthetic limbs and prosthetic devices that restore sight and other senses.

"Establishing a Comprehensive and Standardized Cell Type Characterization Platform"

David J. Anderson, Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology; Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (co-PI)

In collaboration with Hongkui Zeng and colleagues at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Anderson will help to develop a detailed, publicly available database characterizing the genetic, physiological, and morphological features of the various cell types in the brain that are involved in circuits controlling sensations and emotions. Understanding the cellular building blocks of brain circuits, the researchers say, is crucial for figuring out how those circuits can malfunction in disease. In particular, Anderson's lab will focus on the cells of the brain's hypothalamus and amygdala—structures that are vital to emotions and behavior, and involved in human psychiatric disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. "This project will serve as a model for hub-and-spoke collaborations between academic laboratories and the Allen Institute, permitting access to their valuable resources and technologies while advancing the field more broadly," Anderson says.

"Vertically integrated approach to visual neuroscience: microcircuits to behavior"

Markus Meister, Lawrence A. Hanson, Jr. Professor of Biology (co-PI)

This project, led by Hyunjune Sebastian Seung of Princeton University, will use genetic, electrophysiological, and imaging tools to identify and map the neural connections of the retina, the light-sensing tissue in the eye, and determine their roles in visual perception and behavior. "Here we are shooting for a vertically integrated understanding of a neural system," Meister says. "The retina offers such a fantastic degree of experimental access that one can hope to bridge all scales of organization, from molecules to cells to microcircuits to behavior. We hope that success here can eventually serve as a blueprint for understanding other parts of the brain." Knowing the neural mechanisms for vision can also influence technological applications, such as new algorithms for computer vision, or the development of retinal prostheses for the treatment of blindness.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014
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Sunday, October 5, 2014
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Gerry Neugebauer

1932-2014

Gerry Neugebauer, Caltech's Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Physics, Emeritus, and one of the founders of the field of infrared astronomy, passed away on Friday, September 26. He was 82.

Neugebauer earned an AB in physics from Cornell University in 1954 and a PhD in physics from Caltech in 1960. He then served two years in the United States Army, stationed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, before returning to Caltech in 1962 as an assistant professor of physics. He was named an associate professor in 1965, professor in 1970, Howard Hughes Professor in 1985, and Millikan Professor in 1996. He retired in 1998.

He served as the director of the Palomar Observatory from 1980 to 1994 and as the chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy from 1988 to 1993.

In addition to his leadership of the Two-Micron Sky Survey—the first infrared survey of the sky—Neugebauer led the science team for the first orbiting infrared observatory, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), which conducted the first far-infrared sky survey and detected hundreds of thousands of objects. He and his colleagues also obtained the first infrared view of the galactic center, and he was the codiscoverer of the Becklin-Neugebauer Object, a massive but compact and intensely bright newly forming star in the Orion Nebula, previously undetected at other wavelengths of light.

Neugebauer also played a key role in the design and construction of the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. His numerous prizes included the Rumford Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1986), the Herschel Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1998), the Space Science Award of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (1985), and lifetime achievement awards from the American Astronomical Society (the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship, 1996) and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (the Catherine Wolfe Bruce Medal, 2010). He was named California Scientist of the Year in 1986.

A full obituary will follow at a later date.

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Remembering Gerry Neugebauer
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Thomas A. Tombrello

1936-2014

Thomas A. Tombrello, Caltech's Robert H. Goddard Professor of Physics, passed away on Tuesday, September 23. He was 78.

Tombrello was an expert in the application of theoretical and experimental physics to problems in materials science, surface physics, and planetary science. His research studies included understanding the damage processes caused by megavolt ions in solids, characterizing the sputtering of materials by low-energy ions as well as growing and studying novel light-emitting materials.

A native of Texas, he received his bachelor of arts degree in physics in 1958, his master's degree in physics in 1960, and his doctoral degree in physics in 1961, all from Rice University. He was a research fellow at Caltech from 1961–1963, then an assistant professor at Yale University from 1963–1964 before returning to Caltech, again as a research fellow. He was named assistant professor of physics in 1965; associate professor in 1967; professor in 1971; William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Physics in 1997; and Robert H. Goddard Professor of Physics in 2012.

He served as the chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy from 1998 to 2008.

Tombrello was a fellow of the American Physical Society and the recipient of an honorary doctor of philosophy from Uppsala University. At Caltech, he was noted for his commitment to student education, receiving awards for teaching excellence from the Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology (ASCIT) for 1982–1983 and 1986–1987, and, in 1994, the inaugural Richard P. Feynman Prize for Excellence in Teaching, given annually to a teacher who exhibits "unusual ability, creativity, and innovation in teaching."

A full obituary will be posted at a later date.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014
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Superstring Theorist Honored with Science Writing Prize

Theoretical physicist and superstring expert Hirosi Ooguri, Caltech's Fred Kavli Professor of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics and founding director of the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics, has been selected to receive the Kodansha Prize for Science Books, Japan's only major prize for science books, for his popular science work, Introduction to Superstring Theory.

Superstring theory is considered the leading candidate for the ultimate unified theory of the forces and matters in nature, and Ooguri's Japanese-language book offers the general reader a "clear explanation of the essence of the theory," notes Nobel Laureate Makoto Kobayashi, who served on this year's award jury.

Ooguri will receive the award, which comes with a cash prize of approximately $10,000, at a ceremony to be held on September 19, 2014, at the Tokyo Kaikan, adjacent to the Imperial Palace.

"I am honored to receive such a prestigious prize, and I am particularly delighted by the fact that the location of the award ceremony, the Tokyo Kaikan, is where I received the Nishina Memorial Prize five years ago for my research on topological string theory"—research that is also described in Introduction to Superstring Theory. "As a scientist, it is particularly rewarding to be honored twice, once for the original research and this second time for the popular science book conveying the research to general public."

Introduction to Superstring Theory is the final installment in Ooguri's Trilogy on Forces in Nature; the series, which also includes What is Gravity? and Strong Force and Weak Force, has sold a quarter of a million copies in Japan in the last two years.

"Fundamental research may not immediately lead to profit, and support by the society is essential," Ooguri says. "With this book, I tried to return my gratitude to society. It is particularly gratifying to receive letters from high school students saying that the book inspired their interests in science."

In addition to the Nishina Memorial Prize, Ooguri has also been awarded the Leonard Eisenbud Prize for Mathematics and Physics from the American Mathematical Society, the Humboldt Research Award in Physics, and the Simons Investigator Award in Physics. He is a Fellow of the American Mathematical Society, a trustee of the Aspen Center for Physics, and a principal investigator of the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe at the University of Tokyo.

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