Neurophotonics Center Aims to Advance Understanding of the Brain

By Michael Seele

Efforts to understand the workings of the human brain have taken quantum leaps forward in recent years as researchers have developed non-invasive, light-based methods to observe its functioning in real time. Now, the College of Engineering is capitalizing on Boston University’s interdisciplinary expertise in neuroscience and photonics to create the Neurophotonics Center, led by one of the nation’s preeminent researchers in the field.

Professor David Boas (BME) 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 Boston University to pool expertise and further accelerate neurophotonics technologies.

Brain activity in a zebra finch.

“There are tremendous advantages to biomedical and photonics engineers working with neuroscientists,” Boas said. “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 multi-photon microscopy, a method which even 25 years after its advent is still accelerating in terms of its technological advances and its impact in the neurosciences. 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 lay 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 any number of activities while blood flow and oxygenation changes in the brain are observed in real time at a far lower cost. Furthering this research is expected to be one of the Neurophotonics Center’s initial projects.

The Neurophotonics Center is expected to 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 this summer.

An array of faculty from the College of Arts & Sciences, Sargent College and the School of Medicine will join College of Engineering faculty in the center. In addition to Boas, founding ENG faculty include: Photonics Center Director Professor Thomas Bifano (ME), BME Chair Professor John White, Professor Jerome Mertz (BME, ECE), Professor  Barbara Shinn-Cunningham (BME), Professor Howard Eichenbaum (Neuroscience, BME), Professor Siddharth Ramachandran (ECE, MSE), Professor Ji-Xin Cheng (ECE, BME), Professor Irving Bigio (BME, ECE), Associate Professor Kamal Sen (BME), Assistant Professor Jerry Chen (Biology, BME), Assistant Professor Timothy Gardner (BME), Assistant Professor Xue Han (BME), Assistant Professor Lei Tian (ECE), Assistant Professor Darren Roblyer (BME), Assistant Professor Michelle Sander (ECE, MSE), Assistant Professor Allison Dennis (BME, MSE) and Research Assistant Professor Helen Fawcett (ME).

Other BU faculty joining the center from outside the College of Engineering include Professor Chantal Stern (Psychology & Brain Sciences), Professor Helen Tager-Flusberg (Psychology & Brain Sciences), Professor Swathi Kiran (SAR), Assistant Professor Ji Yi (MED), Assistant Professor Alberto Cruz-Martin (Biology) and Assistant Professor Sam Ling (Psychology & Brain Sciences).