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BU professor receives grant for brain research

The National Institutes of Health awarded Boston University assistant biology professor Timothy Gardner, among others, a federal grant Tuesday as part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN Initiative.

BRAIN’s purpose is to encourage and enable scientists to work on developing new technologies that will help researchers gain a deeper understanding of the way brains function, which could ultimately result in ways to treat brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, according to the Tuesday press release. Gardner’s grant is part of the NIH’s $46 million investment in grants for the BRAIN Initiative.

“There’s a big gap between what we want to do in brain research and the technologies available to make such exploration possible,” said NIH Director Francis Collins in the release. “These initial awards are part of a 12-year scientific plan focused on developing the tools and technologies needed to make the next leap in understanding the brain. This is just the beginning of an ambitious journey, and we’re excited about the possibilities.”

Among those who attended Tuesday’s conference for the initiative were Dr. Michael Hasselmo, director of BU’s Center for Systems Neuroscience, and BU vice president and associate provost for research Gloria Waters.

“The main purpose of the conference was sort of to publicize the funding of brain initiative grants, such as the one that Tim Gardner received, and also to discuss the addition of agencies that are involved with the brain initiative,” Hasselmo said. “[The BRAIN Initiative] was an effort to understand the use of new technologies in studying brain function for advancing brain research for advancing innovative neurotechnology.”

Gardner’s grant money will benefit his own laboratory and research with the purpose of developing new technologies, Hasselmo said. In the future, he hopes brain research at BU will become even more advanced.

“The goal is to have researchers using more sophisticated techniques for recording the activities and populations of neurons, and that’s already going on in some labs,” he said. “The main point of Tim’s research really is reducing the diameter of the electrodes so that the new electrodes are smaller and can stay stable for longer periods to record.”

Over the summer, inspired by the BRAIN initiative, BU created the Center for Systems Neuroscience to advance the goals of the BRAIN Initiative and research essential questions in neuroscience, said Waters, who hopes this new technology will ultimately result in new ways to treat brain disorders.

To do so, Gardner is building devices that will eventually allow experts to put probes in the brain, she said.

“The hope is that eventually, there are going to be biomedical applications,” she said. “They’ll help in the actual treatment of human disease, diseases such as Parkinson’s and many others.”

BU has conducted extensive brain research, and this grant is symbolic of the hard work and time BU faculty members have invested, Waters said.

“[The President’s recognition of the school] singles out Boston University as a place where people are doing the excellent work in the field of neuroscience, and I would say that one of the things that we have tried to do as a university is really focus on areas where we can be excellent in terms of research,” she said. “We ourselves have chosen neuroscience as an area that we want to invest in where we think we have really spectacular faculty.”

Several students said the grant will help educators and researchers strengthen neuroscience programs inside and outside of BU’s community.

Andrew Powers, a junior in the College of Communication, said this grant will benefit BU’s research, so long as the experts stay within certain boundaries and do not harm other living things.

“As long as they’re not behaving unethically in some way, I think it’s great that BU has a strong neuroscience research program,” Powers said.

Julia Thee, a sophomore neuroscience major in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she looks forward to seeing how the field will further expand.

“It’s a very small department, very few students major in it, and many drop,” she said. “It’s an expanding field. Every year it’s growing.”

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