Neurophotonics Center: Advancing Understanding of the Brain

in ECE Spotlight Faculty, MSE Spotlight Faculty, MSE Spotlight Research

New BU entity will have faculty from both campuses

By Mike Seele, originally published in BU Today on 5/12/17

David Boas, founding director of the Neurophotonics Center and an ENG professor, comes to BU from Mass General Hospital. Photo by Scott Nobles

The understanding of the human brain has leaped forward in recent years, with the help of the emerging field of neurophotonics, a noninvasive, light-based technology that allows scientists to study the brain’s functioning in real time. Boston University has been a leader in the field and is now capitalizing on its expertise in neuroscience and photonics to create the Neurophotonics Center, led by one of the field’s preeminent researchers.

David Boas is joining the College of Engineering faculty as the new center’s founding director and a professor of biomedical engineering. He comes from Massachusetts General Hospital, where he has pioneered new technologies to see deep into the brain to improve understanding of its healthy functioning and offer new pathways to understand how strokes, migraines, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurologic maladies affect it. Boas is recruiting faculty from throughout ENG and across the University to pool expertise and further accelerate neurophotonics technologies.

“There are tremendous advantages to biomedical and photonics engineers working with neuroscientists,” says Boas. “Neuroscientists have questions and problems that engineers want to solve. Those solutions advance the field and lead to new questions and new solutions. Boston University has a wealth of expertise in photonics, biomedical engineering, and neuroscience that is excellent fuel for this virtuous cycle.”

Many of the center’s efforts will use multiphoton microscopy, a method that even 25 years after it began still has an increasing impact on neuroscience. In addition, the center will be developing and applying novel approaches to measuring human brain function with light.

Human functional brain imaging has been done for several years using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans, which produce sharp images of brain blood oxygenation and flow, key to seeing which areas of the organ are being stimulated at a given time. But fMRI scans require the subject to lie perfectly still in a confining machine for an extended period, obviously not a natural state and a difficult procedure to use with infants, small children, and many others. They are also expensive.

Instead, Boas uses functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIR), which penetrates through the scalp and skull as much as a centimeter into the brain, where it detects blood oxygenation, ultimately enabling the imaging of brain function. The images aren’t as crisp as fMRI scans, but the wearable device allows wearers to move around naturally, engage socially, and go about their activities while researchers observe blood flow and oxygenation changes in the brain in real time at a far lower cost. Furthering this research is expected to be one of the Neurophotonics Center’s initial projects.

Faculty from the College of Arts & Sciences, Sargent College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences, and the School of Medicine will join ENG faculty in the center, among them Thomas Bifano, an ENG mechanical engineering professor and director of the Photonics Center, Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, an ENG biomedical engineering professor, and Howard Eichenbaum and Chantal Stern, both CAS psychological and brain sciences professors. The Neurophotonics Center will draw on the work of doctoral students through the new $2.9 million Research Traineeship grant for neurophotonics from the National Science Foundation, which will award its first fellowships in 2017.