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Two recent research publications authored by bioengineering professor Giorgio Ascoli appear as the cover articles in the first issue of the October edition of the scientific journal Nature.
The thrust of Ascoli’s research involves developing technologies and models to investigate neural circuits from molecular to whole-brain scales. These technologies have implications for a better understanding of brain functions and brain diseases.
“The brain is the most complex object in the universe; it’s the seat of our inner lives and by far the most intelligent machine we know. Mapping all cell types in the brain amounts to establishing a ‘parts list,’ which is an essential step in reverse-engineering the functional circuit blueprint,” says Ascoli.
The Nature article, “A multi-modal cell census and atlas of the mammalian primary motor cortex,” discusses the methods and techniques used to generate a systematic, multi-modal strategy that can be extended to the whole brain. The article reports on the creation of a cell census and atlas of the motor cortex—the area of the mammalian brain that controls movement. The publication is the initial product of the BRAIN Initiative Cell Census Network (BICCN).
“The overarching goal of the BICCN is to leverage these technologies to generate an open-access reference brain cell atlas that integrates molecular, spatial, morphological, connectional and functional data for describing cell types in mouse, human and non-human primates,” says Ascoli.
Much like a population census that defines the characteristics of a group of people and informs decisions, cell census information aligned across species will be highly valuable for making rational choices about the best models for each disease and therapeutic targets.
The companion article “Cellular anatomy of the mouse primary motor cortex” characterizes, in detail, the connectivity architecture of the network of nerve cells making up the command center for movement in the mammalian brain. In this study, Ascoli is the first senior corresponding author of a large collaborative team that includes Mason doctoral graduate Manju Attili (now a lead data scientist at MITRE Corporation), Research Associate Professor Diek Wheeler, and colleagues from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, among other institutions.
Bioengineering department chair Mike Buschmann envisions even more innovative applications for the research. He says, “The molecular and anatomical neuron atlas of the motor cortex that Giorgio and colleagues assembled provides a rigorous ground zero for a myriad of applications in brain-machine interfaces, biologically-inspired robotic controllers, active prosthetics, and artificial intelligence.”