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'I think of it almost like science fiction': Cameras reading minds at UO?

Cristopher Niell’s lab in the UO Institute of Neuroscience is chock-full of cameras. But not normal cameras. These cameras can, in a sense, read minds. (SBG photo)

EUGENE, Ore. - Cristopher Niell's lab in the UO Institute of Neuroscience is chock-full of cameras.

But not normal cameras.

These cameras can, in a sense, read minds.

His lab has come up with a new method of looking at the brain while it's thinking.

"I think of it almost like science fiction," says Niell. "We actually now have a mouse where we can watch the brain lighting up with activity." The mice he's talking about are bred with a special protein in their brain cells that lights up when there's activity in that cell.

From here, the mice can be trained or exposed to stimuli, and researchers can observe the response in the brain. What's new about this technique is the ability to zoom out and get a "global" view of which regions of the brain are responding, but they can also zoom very far in to see individual neurons firing.

From here, they can see what the brain looks like when it sees things, while it's learning, or anything.

Niell says that while we know a lot about how neurons work, we still haven't cracked how exactly the brain works as a system to make us well, us.

"We don't know how all this comes together to create our experience, to do these things like thoughts and emotions, and so on," he said.

He says that as we understand more, we'll know more about diseases like depression or schizophrenia.

Niell was recently given a Young Investigator Award from the Office of Naval Research. "Obviously for the Navy there's things like learning to steer a submarine that are important. Also things like recovery from traumatic brain injury, relearning how to do things," he said.

This is an exciting time for neuroscience. In 2013 the White House rolled out the "Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies," or B.R.A.I.N., Initiative. It's a nationwide effort to work on figuring out the mysteries of the human brain. "Right now we're in a big growth mode for neuroscience," says co-director Chris Doe. "And that's true because neuroscience is a field that has so many new techniques available to it."

The UO Neuroscience Institute is going to expand, hiring two new faculty members in the next two years.

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