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Indian-origin biophysicist wins prestigious US grant

Posted on Aug 19 2014 | IANS

Washington, Aug 19 : A high-risk brain research by Indian-origin biophysicist Partha Mitra from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York has won a crucial grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The grant will allow him to develop a "virtual neuroanatomist", an artificial-intelligence system that can identify cell types and neural structures in microscopic images of brain slices.

"I am pleased to see the NSF embracing projects designed by investigators instead of prescribing specific research," a report in the journal Nature quoted Mitra as saying.

To support the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative by the US government, the NSF has awarded 36 small grants totalling USD 10.8 million to projects studying everything from electrodes that measure chemical and electronic signals to artificial intelligence programs to identify brain structures.

The agency sent a request in March this year for informal, two-page project ideas.

The only criterion was that the projects somehow address the properties of neural circuits.

"The response was overwhelming. The agency had expected to fund about 12 grants, but decided to triple that number after receiving nearly 600 applications," said James Deshler, deputy director of the NSF's division of biological infrastructure.

The wide-ranging list of winning projects includes mathematical models that help computers recognize different parts and patterns in the brain, physical tools such as new types of electrodes, and other tools that integrate and link neural activity to behaviour.

"Most of the projects are very high-risk," Deshler added.

The agencies participating in the BRAIN Initiative have taken markedly different approaches.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which received USD 50 million this year for the neuroscience programme, is concentrating on prosthetics and treatments for brain disorders that affect veterans, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

It has already awarded multi-million dollar grants to several teams.

The National Institutes of Health which received USD 40 million this year has put together a 146-page plan to map and observe the brain over the next decade, and will announce its first round of grant recipients next month, the Nature report said.

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