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Researchers receive award from National Science Foundation to study restoring vision

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Brooklyn, NY – Researchers at SUNY Downstate Medical Center are among the recipients of 19 awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) made to cross-disciplinary teams from across the United States to conduct innovative research focused on neural and cognitive systems. Each award provides a research team with up to $1 million over two to four years. With their award, Stephen L. Macknik, PhD, and Susana Martinez-Conde, PhD, both professors of ophthalmology, neurology, and physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate, will seek to restore vision by genetically modifying neurons in the brain and then stimulating them with light, a method called optogenetics.

The Downstate researchers explain that evoking high-quality visual perception in a blind person, via direct microstimulation of the brain, poses great difficulties. One major obstacle has been that electrical stimulation of the brain typically affects neuronal populations that are mutually suppressive, which subverts proper neuronal signaling. The visual system has two antagonistic information channels that encode either the perception of whiteness, in "on" cells, or blackness, in "off" cells.

Inappropriate coactivation of these two channels results in nullification of contrast, and deprived visual perception. It follows that high-quality prosthetic stimulation systems must avoid unwanted coactivation of mutually suppressive neurons, just as the natural visual system does. This is a challenge because the antagonistic neurons typically lie within microns of each other in the brain.

To address this problem, Drs. Martinez-Conde and Macknik propose transformative advances in viral transfection and imaging methodology, computational theory, and cortical prosthetic neuroengineering design. The expected results and methodology will form the scientific basis to build a breakthrough neuroprosthetic, with transformative potential to further brain research in sensory, motor, and cognitive parts of the cortex, and advance human medicine.

A news release on the National Science Foundation awards is available at the NSF website here: https://nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=242719.

The awards will contribute to NSF's investments in support of Understanding the Brain and the BRAIN Initiative, a coordinated research effort that seeks to accelerate the development of new neurotechnologies. To learn more about NSF investments in fundamental brain research, visit: https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/brain/.

For more information about Dr. Martinez-Conde, please visit: http://www.downstate.edu/ophthalmology/faculty/martinez-conde.html or http://smc.neuralcorrelate.com/.

For Dr. Macknik, please see: http://www.downstate.edu/ophthalmology/faculty/macknik.html or http://macknik.neuralcorrelate.com/.

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About the National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

About SUNY Downstate

SUNY Downstate Medical Center, founded in 1860, was the first medical school in the United States to bring teaching out of the lecture hall and to the patient's bedside. A center of innovation and excellence in research and clinical service delivery, SUNY Downstate Medical Center comprises a College of Medicine, a College of Nursing, a College of Health Related Professions, a School of Graduate Studies, a School of Public Health, University Hospital of Brooklyn, and a multifaceted biotechnology initiative including the Downstate Biotechnology Incubator and BioBAT for early-stage and more mature companies, respectively. SUNY Downstate ranks twelfth nationally in the number of alumni who are on the faculty of American medical schools. More physicians practicing in New York City have graduated from SUNY Downstate than from any other medical school. For more information, visit http://www.downstate.edu.

Media Contact

Ronald Najman
[email protected]
718-270-2696

http://www.downstate.edu

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