Rafael Yuste: Imaging of neuro circuits key to understanding brain function

Neuroscience and brain imaging will be the focus at Photonics West.

03 January 2017

Brain 2017 symposium chair Rafael Yuste leads a group at Columbia University who are trying to image the neural circuits of the brain in hopes of gaining a better understanding of how the brain functions.

"The methods in neuroscience have not been there yet."

Using novel optical techniques such as two-photon and nonlinear microscopy, the lab is trying to bring 3D imaging to the activity of the neural circuits inside the brain. It isn't yet understood how these circuits work, but it is believed that this is where behavior and mental states are determined.

"Unless we have the basic understanding of the biology of the tissue that generates these diseases we are not going to be able to go in intelligently and cure them. It's kind of like trying to fix a car if you don't know how it works," Yuste explained while giving SPIE a tour of the lab.

"I was originally trained as an MD, but I very early switched to basic neuroscience because of the frustration that I experienced myself in trying to treat schizophrenic patients and patients who have mental or neurological diseases," Yuste said. "I'm sure everyone has family or friends who suffer from mental disorders or neurological disorders and you know very, very, well that there are no cures for these diseases as of today. There is nothing we can do for these patients. We treat them by trying to bring down their symptoms, but without attacking the cause of the problem, because we do not know what the causes of the problem are."

Yuste's lab is one of many labs worldwide working on imaging the brain and its functions. Recent increases in federal funding have brought a new energy to discovering how the brain functions and how to better address mental illness through the physical sciences. Bringing these researchers together to discuss their successes and failures is an important part of advancements in the field.

"Neuroscience has not profited from advances in physical sciences as much as it could, so SPIE Photonics West is an ideal venue for the transfer of expertise from the physical sciences and engineering into biology and neuroscience. And we need to build a bridge, to have people who know how to build and operate microscopes and design optical systems with biologists who need methods to answer particular biological questions.

"This year we've tried to put together within a single track all the presentations that have to do with this interface between optical methods and neuroscience. So we are all going to be together in one room and one day, with highlights of some of the most interesting work being done all wrapped up into a general discussion of the brain initiative and how there is funding opportunities now in the BRAIN Initiative for engineers and physical scientists working in the field on photonics."

Yuste is co-chairing the Brain applications track at SPIE Photonics West, along with David Boas of Harvard Medical School, and will give a talk in the Neurotechnologies plenary session at the meeting. The session will feature 10-minute presentations from 10 researchers at the forefront of the field followed by a roundtable discussion. The event will be held Sunday 29 January at 3:30- 5:30 PM as part of SPIE Photonics West.

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