Medical Discovery Team: Optical Imaging & Brain Science

We are driven to produce a complete wiring diagram of the functioning brain

The University of Minnesota's Medical Discovery Team (MDT) on Optical Imaging and Brain Science is a multi-disciplinary effort focused on mapping the detailed circuits that underlie sensation, perception and complex behaviors in the developing and mature brain.

State-of-the-art optical imaging and optical stimulation techniques that provide sub-micron spatial resolution will be used in experimental model systems of health, injury and disease. These techniques include two-photon and three-photon imaging and holographic stimulation of individual cells using two-photon optogenetics.  Recent advances in optics help preserve the high spatial resolution even when examining multiple brain regions simultaneously. Thus, the activity from large ensembles of cells will provide near complete wiring diagrams underlying specific behaviors in the healthy brain as well as in diseases such as Alzheimer's, epilepsy, autism, stroke, and vascular dementia.  Moreover, to create synergy across the MDT’s, researchers in the Optical Imaging MDT may collaborate and lend their technologies to the Addiction MDT and the Nikon University Imaging Center (UIC) core facilitates.


OUR GOAL: To produce a dynamic blueprint of the functioning brain using new methods for large-scale monitoring and interrogation of neural activity. This goal is well-aligned with a newly-established federal program: Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neuro-technologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which is aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain.  Some of our MDT members have already received grants from this highly competitive program. 



The MDT on Optical Imaging and Brain Science will complement the existing strength in Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) so as to develop a comprehensive imaging toolbox at UMN that can provide the seamless translation of mapping brain function across all imaging modalities and spatial scales (from individual synapses, neurons, local microcircuits, to the whole brain). Whole brain activity measurements are achieved with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Located in the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR), UMN has among the highest field strength magnets in the world. fMRI tracks increases in blood flow, and the brain has a mechanism for increasing blood flow to regions with increased neural activity.  But fMRI cannot tell us exactly how many neurons are firing at any given time, and which neurons are triggering the changes in blood flow.  Optical imaging via multi-photon microscopy can measure activity-dependent changes in fluorescent signals directly from individual neurons, astrocytes and blood vessels in the living brain.

We expect strong synergy between the Optical Imaging MDT and the MRI researchers. For this reason, all the optical MDT hires will have their laboratories housed within the CMRR. To date, two researchers with optical imaging 
expertise have been hired and two additional candidates are currently in the process of being interviewed.  Generating activity patterns from large ensembles of cells will generate large volumes of complex data. The optical imaging MDT committee therefore plans to recruit additional faculty with expertise in computational strategies such as machine learning, deep neural networks, graph theory and multi-scale approaches for the analysis of big data.

Learn more about the members of the Optical Imaging and Brain Science Medical Discovery Team:

Prakash Kara, PhD

Gordon Smith, PhD

The State of Minnesota has appropriated significant funds over the next ten years for the Medical School to develop this MDT and thus create a world-class brain imaging program. Additional strengths at the University of Minnesota include the aforementioned internationally-recognized Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, currently at the forefront of the Human Connectome project and the University Imaging Center (UIC), which is recognized as a Nikon Center of Excellence for its cutting-edge microscopy resources, methodologies, and novel technologies.Minnesota is also the home of multiple biomedical research companies at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of changing health outcomes through research and development.

Questions about the Optical Imaging and Brain Science Medical Discovery Team may be directed toward Michael McDaniel at

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