Bring on the neuro tools

A boost to neuroscience technology development could be transformative.

Much excitement has built around neuroscience as the US President announced the launch of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative in the spring of 2013. This multiyear project will promote technological developments related to basic and applied neuroscience, with the goal of advancing our understanding of how brains compute information and what goes wrong in diseases of the nervous system.

We hope to see important technological developments in neuroscience. Credit: Katie Vicari

Neuroscientists are bound by their methods and can only 'see' as far as the methods allow them to. Technologies do exist to record the activity of groups of neurons at high spatial and temporal resolution using either imaging approaches or electrodes, and in recent years, we have seen great advances in methods to manipulate this activity using optogenetics. But interesting brain functions likely emerge from the interaction of many interconnected neurons distributed across a large part of the brain. Monitoring and manipulating these large cellular ensembles in the living organism, and pairing their activity to specific behaviors, remains a challenge. Additional developments in optical and non-optical methods will be needed to expand our view of neuronal activity to include entire interconnected functional circuits.

Of critical importance are biosensors that allow monitoring of and interfering with cellular activity in the living brain. We expect to see major improvements in the performance of genetically encoded voltage sensors and a surge in their in vivo application in the next years. Development of neuronal-activity reporters that are sensitive to the far-red region of the visible light spectrum and increased use of adaptive optics–based methods will be critical to enable deeper in vivo imaging.

We anticipate that technological developments in neuroscience will take many exciting paths in the coming years. A Focus on 'Mapping the Brain' was published in Nature Methods in 2013, http://www.nature.com/nmeth/focus/brainmapping/index.html and we look forward to publishing many methodological developments in this area in the years to come!

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Pastrana, E. Bring on the neuro tools. Nat Methods 11, 28 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2776

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