Engineering researchers share $300K award for brain studies


Two researchers in Vanderbilt’s School of Engineering recently shared in a $300,000 award to fund their studies into how the brain works.

Deyu Li

Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Deyu Li and Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Yaqiong Xu received the award, one of 36 new Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research announced this week by the National Science Foundation. They share it with Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Donna Webb. The award is part of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, spans a two-year period and is designed to explore how complex behaviors emerge from brain circuitry.

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. Human 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.

Yaqiong Xu

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.



David Salisbury, (615) 322-NEWS