Scientist Profile – Professor David Boas

David Boas, Ph.D.

Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Electrical & Computer Engineering
Director of the 
Neurophotonics Center
Director of the
Bio Optical & Acoustic Spectroscopy Lab

Since 2017, Professor David Boas, founding director of the BU Neurophotonics Center (NPC), has been building an interdisciplinary community to develop and deploy photonics technologies that allow scientists to use light to study the brain in impactful new ways.

Professor Boas reflected on the journey that led him to BU, what the center has accomplished since launching six years ago, and the technology they are developing that gets him most excited now.

Professor David Boas models the prototype he has developed that takes Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology to the next level of portability and will empower scientists to monitor and image human brain hemodynamics in increasingly natural settings. Image credit: Jim Cooney

How did you get into studying the brain?

While doing my PhD in physics at University of Pennsylvania I’d begun working in the emerging field biomedical optics, which basically uses light to study tissue noninvasively for medical and biological purposes. After graduating, I wanted to continue pursuing that, so I ended up at the Martinos Center at Mass General Hospital where I could be closer to the clinical applications. There they were very focused on the brain—they were the first ones to do functional MRI—and they were really interested in how we could utilize the technology I worked on, near-infrared spectroscopy, to study human brain function.

Can you describe one of your earliest collaborations there?

At Mass General we were focused at first on developing optical methods to study human brain function, but I started meeting other faculty who were studying the brain in animal models. For instance, Mike Moskowitz was a stroke researcher and he wanted to get images of blood flow in the rodent brain. I told him, “I know how to do that with optical methods.” We used laser speckle contrast imaging, which had never been applied to the brain before, and it was a huge success. And so that started this process of understanding the needs of the neuroscientists and developing new optical methods for them to help expand their research capabilities and answer questions that up to that moment they couldn’t answer. That would then lead to new research questions, which needed new technology, and on it went, making for an exciting 20 years at Mass General where we continued to develop new technologies to fill these needs.

What made Boston University a fitting environment for launching an interdisciplinary center devoted to neurophotonics?

BU already had so much great photonics research and neuroscience research, but the marriage between them was still kind of nascent, and I had a lot of experience connecting technologies with neuroscientific needs, so it was pretty easy to come into this environment and help make all these new connections. When I interviewed for a senior position at BU, I actually pitched the idea not really knowing that the environment was so outstanding for matching photonics and neuroscience, but during the course of the interview it became obvious that this would be an amazing thing to do, and so I got excited, and BU got excited. This also happened around the same time that the NIH Brain Initiative was providing a lot of new funding opportunities.

Can you briefly describe one of those early successful connections?

Ian Davison and his colleague Tim Gardner, who has since left BU, had these microscopes that songbirds and mice could wear, but they could only image a small field of view of like one or two millimeters. So I went to Lei Tian, who develops computational imaging systems, and I suggested that he could develop a solution that would enable a wearable microscope to image a larger field of view. So Lei Tian started working with Ian Davison with support from the Neurophotonics Center and they received a Dean’s Catalyst Award from [the College of] Engineering, then an R21 grant, then an R01 grant, and they have successfully built this wearable microscope that provides a larger field of view and the applications are growing.

Let’s talk about more recent successes. What is this cool-looking device that you’re now strapping to your head and chest?

This is a prototype of an advanced functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) system that is wearable and highly portable compared to previous fNIRS systems. Near-infrared light diffuses through the scalp and skull into the brain, and some of the light is absorbed by the hemoglobin in red blood cells while the rest bounces back to the surface where we detect it. This is technology I’ve been developing 25 years, but it first started with big boxes and fiber optics going to the head, so not nearly as portable. We’ve also never had this many channels on the head—200 optodes. The device measures hemoglobin fluctuations in the brain, which is essentially what fMRI does. Now, we don’t have the same spatial resolution as fMRI and we don’t penetrate as deep into the brain, but we do see a lot of the brain and I’m able to make measurements of brain activity while the subject moves around. We’ve been building this new system for five years and I’m finally in that intense phase of optimizing all the software. I’m also talking to lots of our cognitive science colleagues on campus, trying to figure out with them what new types of experiments they can imagine doing with this kind of tool that enables the monitoring and imaging of brain activity in more natural environments.

With the time we have left, what is a non-science fact about you that surprises people?

Over the last six years I’ve spent a lot of time as the pit crew for my go-kart racing son. I’ve become quite good at doing mechanical engine work on high-performance karts. My son was 12 years old when he started, now he’s 17 and he’s driving two-cycle engines, 14,000 RPM’s, it’s just insane—very scary to drive them just due to how fast they are.

*For a deeper dive into how Professor David Boas and the Neurophotonics Center have been advancing this emerging field, read the 2018 feature article, “Lighting Up the Brain,” in The Brink.

*This interview was conducted and edited by Jim Cooney.