BME Assistant Professor Receives CAREER Award for Neuron Research

Zoran Nenadic to study electrical activity of neurons

Zoran Nenadic, D.Sc., assistant professor of biomedical engineering and electrical engineering and computer science, has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation for his proposal, “CAREER: Estimation of Neuron’s Position, Size and Dendritic Tree Morphology via Multi-sensor Extracellular Recording Technology.”

Extracellular recording of the electrical activity of neurons in the brain has become the method of choice in experimental neuroscience. These types of recordings, performed with an electrode positioned near an individual neuron, have characterized much of what is known about brain function.

In recent decades, this technology has progressed to the point where multiple electrodes, each equipped with multiple sensors and integrated within a single microdrive device, can be lowered independently into an area of interest within the brain. Despite these advances, the process of extracellular recording remains tedious and time consuming, which limits the full potential of multi-electrode and multi-sensor technology.

Constant human supervision is required in studies of this nature due to the lack of information about the relative position and migration trends of neurons with respect to the recording electrodes. Very little is also known about the properties of neurons whose activities are being recorded, which can lead to interpretative errors in research data.

Nenadic’s proposal seeks to use advanced mathematical and engineering techniques to develop a statistical framework to estimate a neuron’s position, size and dendritic tree morphology (or shape), based on multi-sensor measurements of the neuron’s extracellular electric field. Once Nenadic has developed this framework, it will then be tested, first computationally, using detailed computational neuron models, and then experimentally, using animal brain slices, and then compared for accuracy.

The proposed framework will enable more efficient positioning and guidance of electrodes, estimation of neuron’s migration trends, and experimental separation of neurons according to their size and shape. The study will also lead to the development of optimal design criteria for multi-sensor recording electrodes. By bringing together ideas from engineering, mathematics, and neuroscience, this interdisciplinary research plan will fundamentally transform the way extracellular recording experiments are conducted, while addressing important problems arising at the neuron-electrode interface.  These advances will allow scientists to tackle many open questions in neuroscience, and fundamentally advance scientific understanding of the animal brain.

As part of the proposal’s educational component, Nenadic will devise, implement and test educational tools and measures designed to address the concerns engineering education in the U.S. faces today, and will face in the future. Specifically, he plans to enhance the educational experience of biomedical engineering students to help them better prepare for the challenges imposed by the changing global context of engineering. He will also promote engineering education and the pursuit of engineering careers in underrepresented students from kindergarten through high school, and contribute to the professional development and retention of their math and science teachers.