Neuroscientist Gilad Barnea has earned a $1.3-million, four-year grant to develop a means for labeling functional circuits in the brains of mice. If successful, the project could create a powerful new tool for studying neurological and psychiatric diseases.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The National Institutes of Health has tapped Brown University neuroscientist Gilad Barnea for a second time to produce high-risk, high-impact research through a special, competitive grant program.

Barnea won his first EUREKA (Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration) award in 2009 to monitor dopamine in the brain. Now he’s received a new four-year, $1.3-million EUREKA to develop a technology for labeling whole functional circuits in the brain.

“We propose to develop a new technology for functional mapping and manipulation of neural circuits in mice,” according to the grant summary.

The technology will use genetic and molecular techniques to imbue brain cells, or neurons, with a synthetic signaling pathway that can be artificially activated. A stimulated neuron will release the neurotransmitter glutamate into the connections, or synapses, it shares with other cells in circuits. When that happens, the downstream cells predisposed by the imbued pathway will express a readily detected marker protein. In this way a whole circuit can become labeled.

“This technology will lead to a deeper understanding of normal brain function and will also enable the identification of specific changes that occur in particular neural circuits in mouse models of human diseases,” according to the grant. “Our technology will therefore reveal new insights into the mechanisms underlying psychiatric disorders, addiction, and the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.”

In a word: “Eureka!”