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An engineering approach to the study of the brain

Copyright free (Pixabay/Creative Commons CC0)

For World Mental Health Day and as part of Biology Week, we spoke to Simon Schultz, Professor of Neurotechnology, and Director of the Centre for Neurotechnology at Imperial College London.

Copyright: Professor Simon Schultz
Copyright: Professor Simon Schultz

“What we do is to bring an engineering approach to the study of the brain”, explains Professor Schultz, “for instance by developing new technologies for monitoring and manipulating brain activity.”

According to the World Health Organisation, Mental Health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community

“There is traditionally this distinction between ‘neurological’ and ‘psychiatric’ disorders”, says Professor Schultz. “The term ‘Mental Health’ is typically used with respect to the ‘psychiatric disorders’ category.”

“From my engineer’s viewpoint, this distinction between neurological and psychiatric disorders is a bit arbitrary”, says Professor Schultz. “Disorders that we might associate with mental health issues may stem from underlying problems in cortical circuit function, regardless of whether there is a macroscopically observable issue that will be visible in an MRI scanner.”

The aim of Professor Schultz’s lab is to understand how information is represented and processed by neural circuits, which underlie perception, action, and memory - all of which are part of mental health.

“This is why we’re developing tools that combine optical, electronic, and robotic technology to help us to understand how cortical circuits work.”

Cortical circuits are extremely complex systems that operate with a finely-tuned balance of excitation and inhibition - it is not surprising that their disorders range from the profound to the subtle.

“For now we’re focusing on neurodegeneration”, says Professor Schultz, “but the tools we are developing are certainly applicable to a much wider range of brain disorders, including neurodevelopmental disorders that we would normally think of as ‘mental health’ disorders, or have mental health issues associated with them.”

Recently, Professor Schultz and his team announced that they had successfully ‘taught’ robots to perform challenging brain techniques only previously mastered by a handful of humans. Known as Whole-Cell Recording (WCR), this process has long-served as the gold-standard technique for studying brain cell behaviour, in particular neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. The technique is notoriously difficult to perform owing to the small scale of equipment used, and only a few labs were able to specialise in this.

“While we’re focusing on neurodegenerative disorders in my lab, WCR certainly applicable to mouse models of neurodevelopmental disorders”, explains Professor Schultz. “WCR is being used to study mouse models of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, epilepsy and autistic spectrum disorders, so our technique should certainly have impact on these areas, too”.

Copyright: Professor Simon Schultz
Professor Simon Schultz and Dr Luca Annecchino in their laboratory Copyright: Professor Simon Schultz

“One of the things our new automated technique allows is recordings to be made from specific genetically targeted cell types in the functioning brain, so it should be quite valuable in revealing the role different cell types play in these disorders.”

As many labs currently lack expertise in WCR when carried out by humans, this new robotic technique could potentially benefit far more patients around the world.

“We have developed a robotic platform that can automatically guide a micropipette deep into the brain to seal against the membrane of a specific genetically and optically targeted cell.”

“This lets us both record the activity of the cell, as well as manipulate it,” explains Professor Schultz, “and ultimately this gives us unparalleled access to see how the cell is affected by a mental health condition.”

To find out more about events and activities happening near you for Biology Week 2017, visit: Royal Society of Biology: What's on in Biology Week 2017.

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To find out more about Professor Schultz’s project, visit: Neural Coding and Neurodegenerative Disease Laboratory.


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Tags: people skills and training biology health brain feature