Watching the brain do its thing

April 3, 2014 by Cynthia Eller
Mikhail Shapiro. Credit: Lance Hayashida

To a large extent, the brain remains a black box. Taking it out of its case inside the skull and examining it—as in an autopsy—reveals some things, but not how the brain works in a living, functioning being. Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering Mikhail Shapiro is determined to reveal the mysteries of the brain in situ, in living beings, right down to the cellular level.

Shapiro comes to Caltech from UC Berkeley, where he launched his independent research career as a Miller Fellow. Prior to that, Shapiro was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. He received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shapiro recently sat down to discuss his research and his adjustment to his new life at Caltech.

What are you most excited about in coming to Caltech?

I'm excited for the opportunity to collaborate with the amazing faculty and students we have here across the disciplines. My first three PhD students all come from different programs, and I already have a collaboration with a colleague in electrical engineering. I can't imagine this happening so quickly and naturally anywhere else in the world.

What is the main focus of your research?

The goal of our research is to develop ways to study biological systems at the in living, breathing organisms. To do that we need ways to image and control specific molecular functions in tissues noninvasively.

Great advances have been made with dyes and to help scientists see what's happening inside , but these techniques don't allow us to penetrate very deeply into larger tissues. So what we want to do is create the equivalents of dyes and fluorescent proteins for technologies like ultrasound and (MRI) so that we can see and label very specific things deep inside the body, and particularly in the brain.

For example, we are interested in how neural in the brain—which are regenerated even in adults—develop into different types of . What kinds of genes do they turn on and off, as they become a neuron or a glial cell in different parts of the brain? We are designing molecular reporters that will allow us to use MRI or ultrasound to monitor these cells as they migrate, express genes, and integrate into functional neural circuits.

How do you get these "molecular reporters" into the body?

The vast majority of the things we're working on are genetically encodable, which means that we can take the relevant genes, put them into a vector—for example, a nontoxic virus—and deliver them to specific cells. So not only would we be able to target a particular region of the , but we would be able to target specific cell types.

Will the technologies you're developing be useful in exploring other systems in the body?

Yes. Our main raison d'etre is to develop ways to probe the nervous system, but the technologies we develop could be used in a variety of biological contexts and in synthetic biology. In addition, we are fascinated by the basic science involved with connecting various forms of energy—magnetic fields, sound waves, temperature—with biological molecules and . This interface is relatively unexplored, and we hope to contribute to its fundamental understanding.

Explore further: Unlocking the brain's secrets using sound

Related Stories

Unlocking the brain's secrets using sound

January 22, 2014

(Phys.org) —The brain is a reclusive organ. Neurons the cells that make up the brain, nerves, and spinal cord communicate with each other using electrical pulses known as action potentials, but their interactions are complicated ...

Real-time insight into our brain

March 4, 2014

Combining two imagine technologies, such as MRI for structure and MEG for activity, could provide a new understanding of our how our brain works.

MRI reveals genetic activity

March 25, 2014

Doctors commonly use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to diagnose tumors, damage from stroke, and many other medical conditions. Neuroscientists also rely on it as a research tool for identifying parts of the brain that carry ...

Eliciting brain plasticity to keep the body moving

April 1, 2014

With support from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Emerging Frontiers of Research and Innovation (EFRI) program, bioengineer Gert Cauwenberghs, of the Jacobs School of Engineering and the Institute for Neural Computation ...

Recommended for you

Basic research fuels advanced discovery

August 26, 2016

Clinical trials and translational medicine have certainly given people hope and rapid pathways to cures for some of mankind's most troublesome diseases, but now is not the time to overlook the power of basic research, says ...

New method creates endless supply of kidney precursor cells

August 25, 2016

Salk Institute scientists have discovered the holy grail of endless youthfulness—at least when it comes to one type of human kidney precursor cell. Previous attempts to maintain cultures of the so-called nephron progenitor ...

New avenue for understanding cause of common diseases

August 25, 2016

A ground-breaking Auckland study could lead to discoveries about many common diseases such as diabetes, cancer and dementia. The new finding could also illuminate the broader role of the enigmatic mitochondria in human development.

Strict diet combats rare progeria aging disorders

August 25, 2016

Mice with a severe aging disease live three times longer if they eat thirty percent less. Moreover, they age much healthier than mice that eat as much as they want. These are findings of a joint study being published today ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.