Research News

Three researchers receive EAGER awards

conceptual neuron with wires coming out of it

Three Vanderbilt researchers have received an award designed to better understand how complex behaviors emerge from activity on brain circuitry as part of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative.

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Donna Webb, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Deyu Li and Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Yaqiong Xu received the award, which is for $300,000 over a two-year period. It is one of 36 new Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research announced this week by the National Science Foundation.

The goal of their project is to develop a new graphene-based technology capable of measuring the properties and activities of individual dendritic spines and synapses. Our brains are composed of trillions of dendritic spines and synapses that serve as sites of communication between neurons within complex neuronal circuits. Neuroscientists think that dendritic spines and synapses are unique and display different properties and activities, so the ability to study them is extremely important for understanding how the brain works.

Because a major function of spines and synapses is to transmit signals that control information flow within the brain, studying these structures at an individual synapse level should lead to a new understanding of how information is relayed among brain circuits to control cognitive function. Since changes in the structure and function of spines and synapses are associated with many neurological disorders, insight gained from these studies could also lead to better treatments for various neurological disorders.

Currently, there are no available methods for investigating the electrical properties of individual spines and synapses. So, Webb and her collaborators will develop new graphene-based platforms for this specific purpose by combining the expertise of neurobiologists and engineers.