August 23, 2004
Physicist Alan Litke receives award to develop
technology for neuroscience
By Tim Stephens
Alan Litke, an adjunct professor of physics at UCSC, has received an
award from the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience to support an
interdisciplinary research project with neurobiologist E. J. Chichilnisky
of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego. The McKnight
Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Award will provide $200,000
over two years to support their research.
Litke and Chichilnisky are developing technology to study how the neural
network of the retina at the back of the eye processes and encodes information
about the visual world and communicates it to the brain. Litke has been
doing research in this area for more than a decade with support from
the National Science Foundation and has been collaborating with Chichilnisky
since 1997. He is also involved in experimental particle physics research
at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, and is affiliated with the Santa Cruz
Institute for Particle Physics (SCIPP) at UCSC.
"This is truly interdisciplinary research, where our expertise
in experimental high-energy physics can bring new possibilities to neuroscience,"
Litke and his collaborators (including other researchers at SCIPP and
CERN) are adapting techniques and expertise from physics and microelectronic
engineering to fabricate arrays of closely spaced microscopic electrodes
and custom-designed integrated circuits. The system is based on the
silicon microstrip detector technology and expertise that SCIPP researchers
have pioneered and developed to study short-lived particles in high-energy
physics experiments. In this project, these tools will be applied to
the study of living neural networks, with current efforts focusing on
the retina, a thin tissue lining the back of the eye.
Litke likens the retina to a sophisticated pixel detector that converts
an input visual image into a set of highly processed electrical signals
that travel up the optic nerve to the brain. He and Chichilnisky are
developing a "Retinal Readout System" that will allow the
simultaneous recording of signals from hundreds of retinal output neurons
(the ganglion cells) while a dynamic visual image is focused on the
input neurons (the photoreceptors). This system will allow them to study
the neural code at the interface between the retina and the brain.
The researchers also plan to explore the applications of their research
to the design of a retinal prosthetic device for restoring visual function
in people with retinas damaged by disease. This aspect of their project
will involve interactions with Wentai Liu, a professor of electrical
engineering at UCSC and campus director of the Center for Biomimetic
MicroElectronic Systems (BMES). Liu heads the engineering tasks for
a major retinal prosthesis project involving several institutions. The
project has produced a prototype device that has been tested in a small
number of patients with promising results.
In addition, Litke and Chichilnisky expect that their investigations
of the retina will enable them to apply similar technology to the study
of other neural systems.
Litke's collaborators on the project include a chip design group led
by CERN researcher Wladek Dabrowski of Krakow, Poland. SCIPP researchers
who have made important contributions to the project include research
physicist Alex Grillo, physics graduate student Matthew Grivich, engineer
Sergei Kachiguine, postgraduate researcher Dumitru Petrusca, and postdoctoral
physicist Alexander Sher.
The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience is an independent organization
funded solely by the McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The McKnight Foundation has supported neuroscience research since 1977
and in 1986 set up the Endowment Fund, led by eminent scientists in
the field, to oversee the program. Since 1987, the Endowment Fund has
committed nearly $34 million for neuroscience research through a series
of awards based on competitive applications.
The McKnight Foundation, founded in 1953 and endowed by William L.
McKnight and Maude L. McKnight, has assets of approximately $1.9 billion
and granted about $75 million in 2003. William McKnight was one of the
early leaders of the 3M Company, although the foundation has no affiliation
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