Six BRAIN Initiative Scientists Receive NIH High-Risk High-Reward Awards

Neural recoding probe surrounded by colorful neurons.

The BRAIN-funded scientists Drs. Polina Anikeeva, Rui Costa, Josh Huang, Mikhail Shapiro, Chethan Pandarinath and Todd Roberts were among the recipients of these prestigious awards.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded 106 grants through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research program created to fund innovative and impactful research in different biomedical, social, and behavioral science fields. These awards, which do not require any preliminary data, support outstanding scientists at all career stages to promote research into uncharted territories deemed too risky for the traditional peer-review process but have the potential to have significant impact. The four award categories, totaling $329 million over five years, included the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award (10 awards), the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (60 awards), the NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award (19 awards), and the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award (13 awards). 

A NIH Director’s Pioneer Award was granted to Dr. Polina Anikeeva, a Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and BRAIN and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She serves as the Associate Director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics and is an Associate Member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Dr. Anikeeva’s award will be used to establish mechanistic links between activity of peripheral neurons and brain circuits and develop a species-agnostic framework for targeting and remote modulation of specific cells within the peripheral organs and the brain during behavior. These technologies and findings could pave the way for developing organ-centric therapies for neurological and mental conditions. Her BRAIN Initiative grants have supported the development of tools for the wireless magnetomechanical neuromodulation of targeted circuits and for multi-site non-invasive magnetothermal excitation and inhibition of deep brain structures.

Dr. Rui Costa, a Professor of Neuroscience and Neurology at Columbia University, also received a NIH Director’s Pioneer award. Dr. Costa leads the Zuckerman Mind Brain and Behavior Institute, and his laboratory uses and develops genetic, electrophysiological, optical, and behavioral approaches to investigate the neurobiology of action in health and disease. His team has produced new models of how basal ganglia circuits interact with other circuits to modulate movement initiation/termination and organize and refine movement. The award will fund his lab’s effort to employ state-of-the art viral tracing methods to map innervation of spleen and pancreas at multiple levels, RNA sequencing to characterize neuron identity, in vivo calcium imaging to measure neuronal activity in descending circuits, and chemo- and optogenetic tools to causally test how descending circuits impact splenic and pancreatic function. His collaborative BRAIN Initiative U19 award is aimed at understanding the computational and circuit mechanisms underlying motor control.

Another recipient of the NIH Director’s Pioneer award is Dr. Josh Huang who is a Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine. The overarching theme of Dr. Huang’s research is to understand the general principles of neural circuit organization of cerebral cortex that enable cognitive function through a genetic dissection of neuronal cell types. He pioneered a systematic genetic approach to cortical circuits in the mouse and has made major discoveries in the molecular genetic basis of neuronal identity, synapse specificity, and neural plasticity. Dr. Huang’s award will be used to fund the development of a suite of RNA-programmable tools for cell-type targeting, editing, and therapy across organ tissues and animal species. This technology has the potential to be specific, easy, affordable and widely applicable in biomedical research and clinical applications. Dr. Huang is also the project leader of a BRAIN Initiative collaborative U19 that supports the development of a comprehensive center for mouse brain cell atlas.

Dr. Mikhail Shapiro, a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Director of the Center for Molecular and Cellular Medicine at Caltech, also received a NIH Director’s Pioneer award. His laboratory develops technologies to enable the imaging and control of cellular function deep inside the body to enable basic biological research and the development of cell-based diagnostics and therapeutics. These technologies combine biomolecular and cellular engineering with the physics of ultrasound and magnetic fields. Dr. Shapiro’s award will fund a new research direction that could make an impact for ultrasound in the way optogenetics has done for light – by giving sound waves the ability to control specific cellular functions such as neuronal excitation, gene expression and intracellular signaling in vivo. This technology, if successful, will establish the new field of sonogenetics, and enable the conversion of ultrasound into mechanical force. By applying this technique to engineered receptors that are sensitive to force, selective cellular pathways can be triggered for modulation of neural activity and immunotherapy. Dr. Shapiro is a recipient of multiple BRAIN Initiative awards for the ultrasonic modulation of neural circuits.

A NIH Director’s New Innovator was awarded to Dr. Chethan Pandarinath who is an Assistant Professor in Biomedical Engineering and Neurosurgery at Emory University and Georgia Tech. His research uses artificial intelligence to study neural computation and to improve the performance and robustness of brain-machine interfaces. Dr. Pandarinath’s award will be used to substantially increase the performance and robustness of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) by combining new developments from the field of artificial intelligence with recent advances in our understanding of brain function, with the goal of improving quality of life for people with severe movement disabilities. His BRAIN Initiative grant is on robust modeling of within- and cross-area population dynamics using recurrent neural networks.

Dr. Todd Roberts was awarded a NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award. He is a neuroscientist at UT Southwestern Medical Center as an Associate Professor in the Department of Neuroscience, a Thomas O. Hicks Scholar in Medical Research, and an Investigator in the O’Donnell Brain Institute. His laboratory uses a variety of optical, electrophysiological, molecular and genetic approaches to examine how songbirds learn their song(s). Dr. Roberts’s award, with co-investigators Dr. Joseph Takahashi and Dr. F. Kent Hamra, will be used to study the genetic basis of vocal learning. This research will establish genetic screens and tools for verifying gene function in zebra finches and will provide a novel, comprehensive, and broadly impactful approach for understanding the genetic basis of vocal and social communication. Dr. Roberts’s research has been supported by multiple BRAIN Initiative awards on sensorimotor learning and the neural basis for planning and production of learned vocalizations.