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Scientists’ understanding of the human brain has leapt forward in recent years, with the help of noninvasive, light-based technology that allows them to study its functioning in real time. Boston University is capitalizing on its expertise in neuroscience and photonics to create the Neurophotonics Center, led by one of the nation’s preeminent researchers in the field.

David Boas is joining the faculty from Massachusetts General Hospital, where he has pioneered new technologies to see deep into the brain in order to improve our understanding of the organ’s healthy functioning and offer new pathways to understand how strokes, migraines, Alzheimer’s disease, and other neurologic maladies affect it. Boas, the center’s founding director, is recruiting faculty from throughout the College of Engineering 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 utilize multiphoton microscopy, a method which, even 25 years after its advent, is still accelerating its 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 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, not a natural state and a difficult procedure to use with infants, small children, and others. They are also expensive.

Instead, Boas uses functional near-infrared spectroscopy, 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 the subject to move around naturally, engage socially, and perform 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, and the School of Medicine will join ENG faculty in the center, including BU Photonics Center director Thomas Bifano, Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, Howard Eichenbaum, and Chantal Stern. The Neurophotonics Center will draw on the efforts of doctoral students through the new $2.9 million National Science Foundation Research Traineeship grant for neurophotonics, which will award its first fellowships in 2017.