Computer Science Professor Jason Cong, in collaboration with five other UCLA researchers, has recently been awarded an $8.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to further fund the team’s research on their open-source mini microscope project.

The project started in 2011 when Dr. Peyman Golshani, the grant’s principal investigator and associate professor of neurology at UCLA, read about a miniaturized microscope developed at Stanford University that was light enough to be worn by a laboratory mouse. Stanford’s mini-microscope opened up an entire realm of brain-imaging-related research opportunities: researchers could now observe neuronal activity in a mouse’s brain as it explored its environment, or interacted with other animals. However, a commercialized version of the Stanford microscope cost around $150,000, limiting the accessibility of the tool to only those who could afford it. Golshani’s lab was able to develop a version of the microscope made mostly out of off-the-shelf parts, which reduced the overall cost to around $1,000. The team then created their own wiki page, which includes a parts lists, detailed tutorials for building and using the device, as well as an open forum for researchers to post questions or suggestions. Now, the open-source microscope has already been adopted by over 200 labs worldwide.

The new NSF project led by Golshani with participation of five other UCLA professors — Tad Blair, Jason Cong, Alcino Silva, Sotiris Masmanidis, and Daniel Aharoni — as well as Alipasha Vaziri, a professor at Rockefeller University, will greatly improve the open-source miniscope in multiple dimensions to address the new demands from the research community. For instance, one researcher posted a note saying a 2-gram model of the miniscope would be helpful for recording brain activity in songbirds, which prompted the UCLA team to produce an even lighter version of the microscope, and another request from a scientist who studies bats prompted the team to create a battery-powered wireless version that saves data onto a micro-SD card.

In particular, computer science professor Jason Cong, together with professor Tad Blair from psychology, is working on further improving the capabilities of the miniscope by directing the effort on enabling real-time embedded processing of neural signals extracted from the brain.

“Essentially, we want the microscope to be able to ‘read your mind’ in real time,” Cong explained. “Of course, this project will be focusing on animals initially, mainly mice or rats.”

As a professor of computer science, Cong is the only researcher on the project who doesn’t hail from the department of neurology or a related field. Cong’s main research interests lie in computer architectures and computer-aided design of VLSI circuits and systems, and while the project seems to lie outside of his typical work, Cong says it actually ties in well with his background and current research interests.

“[This project] presents significant computational challenges for real-time processing with tight energy-efficient requirements, since the computation has to be done on a device small enough to fit the head of a mouse,” Cong said. “So, it’s actually an ideal case to apply the customized computing techniques that we’ve been developing. I’ve also always been curious about how our brains do information processing — it has incredible capabilities, especially in terms of energy efficiency. By helping neuroscientists better understand the brain, I think we can also get some important inspiration for designing more energy-efficient computers.”

In the long run, Cong is confident that the project will help to advance neuroimaging research by making equipment more accessible so that researchers can fully understand the brain, which can in turn help advance many areas of medicine, as well as computing.

Read the full story on the UCLA miniscope and their $8.3 million NSF grant here.