The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience today announced that Dr. Jason Christie has been awarded a $2.1 million grant over five years by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes for Health (NIH).
Dr. Christie leads the Synapse Physiology Group at the Max Planck Florida Institute, which focuses on the fundamental aspects of neurotransmission at synapses, the point-to-point connections between neurons.
He said that the research funded by this NIH grant “is aimed at providing a better understanding of the electrical signaling properties of brain cells.” Brain cells – called neurons –have a dendrite, which is the receiving end, and an axon, which is the transmitting end. His grant focuses on the transmitting end, specifically “how electrical signals are both transmitted and transformed by the axon.” Dr. Christie’s goal is to understand how the electrical signals in axons are altered near synapses – the site of connections between neurons. He says, “This work has many implications for human health because a number of pathological conditions are specifically linked to axon dysfunction. If we have a better understanding of how signaling occurs in axons, we will be able to significantly accelerate the development of new treatments for such disorders.”
Although the grant is not a result of the Obama Administration’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative, Dr. Christie’s work, like most of the research being done at the Max Planck Florida Institute, involves “novel non-invasive light-based technologies for exploring brain circuit function, which are fundamental for achieving the objectives of the BRAIN initiative.”
He is particularly enthusiastic about the groundbreaking improvements in the research tools that are now available to neuroscientists. “The changes in technology over the last 10 years have been remarkable,” he said. “I think we are entering a period where, due to the rapid development of new technologies, our rate of discovery regarding basic brain function will accelerate very quickly. This will allow major breakthroughs in our understanding of brain functions including the biological basis of thoughts and perceptions.”
Dr. Christie’s research, in part, employs a technique called patch-clamp electrophysiology. Using this technique, researchers carefully attach an electrode onto a neuron and via advanced electronics, record and manipulate the minute electrical signals occurring in the cell. However, with this new grant, he plans on switching to new laser-based techniques to replace the intrusive patch-clamp electrophysiology with a non-invasive light-based approach. These cutting-edge visualization techniques allow observation of living brain cells “in action.”
“A decade ago,” he said, “everything was based on patch clamp techniques to carefully record or influence the activity of individual cells. But this approach is highly invasive and not really scalable in terms of allowing the activity of many cells to be recorded at once. With the new non-invasive laser-assisted technologies, investigators can now record or influence activity of large groups of cells at the same time.”
The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience is the first and only extension of the prestigious Max Planck Society. Dr. David Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Institute, said that grants like the one awarded to Dr. Christie, “will pave the way for new insights, hopefully leading to advances in treatments and cures for brain disorders ranging from Parkinson’s to epilepsy.”
About the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience
The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience is the first American institute established by Germany’s prestigious Max Planck Society. It brings together top research neuroscientists from around the world to collaborate on unlocking the mysteries of the brain—the most important and least understood organ in the body—by providing new insight into the functional organization of the nervous system, and its capacity to produce perception, thought, language, memory, emotion, and action. The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience meets this challenge by forging links between different levels of analysis—genetic, molecular, cellular, circuit, and behavioral—and developing new technologies that make cutting edge scientific discoveries possible. The results of the research will be shared publicly with scholars, universities and other institutions around the globe to advance life-saving and life-improving treatments and cures for brain disorders ranging from autism, to Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s. For more information, visit www.maxplanckflorida.org