In This Lab, Two Heads Are Better Than One

Sept. 2, 2015

University of Arizona scientists Stephen Cowen and Michael Heien are developing technology that will allow scientists to better measure how populations of brain cells, known as neurons, can communicate with each other in real time.

Neurons relay information through a complex system of chemical and electrical signaling. Although scientists have been making chemical and electrical measurements of populations of neurons separately since the 1950s, no one has yet figured out how to measure the two simultaneously.

The ability to rapidly capture the chemical and electrical signals relayed through the brain is critical to understanding its function. The new technology focuses on the measurement of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in learning, reward and attention — as well as many neurological disorders.

Cowen, an assistant professor of psychology, specializes in taking electrical recordings from populations of neurons in rats as they exert effort and make decisions. Heien, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, studies chemical signaling between neurons in culture.

The research is made possible by a two-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research program, a part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, initiative. The initiative is part of an Obama administration focus aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain.