A novel genetic technology for functional mapping of the entire brain

A novel genetic indicator transforms brain activity into a magnetic signal allowing for full brain scale activity mapping during experience over time.


The BRAIN Initiative, a scientific flagship of the Obama administration in the US has granted a project for the first time in Spain. Prof. Mazahir T. Hasan, an Ikerbasque Professor at Achucarro Basque Center for Neuroscience will lead a two-year project to unveil novel genetic tools

The project will foster a collaboration with other researchers and institutions within the Basque Science and Technology network, such as Prof. Dr. Pedro Ramos Cabrer at the CIC biomaGUNE and with Prof. Dr. Jesús Cortes Díaz at the Biocruces Bizkaia Health Research Institute, consolidating an interdisciplinary partnership that covers synthetic biology, MRI data acquisition and analyses.

The NIH, the funding agency for the BRAIN Initiative has granted 300.000 euros for the launch of this exploratory project that expects to reach the objectives by mid-2022.

About the “Genetic MRI”

Today it is often said that our brains truly make us who we are. The human brain has roughly 100 billion neurons and about the same number of glial cells connected through complex neurobiological networks, encoding and processing our perceptions, feelings, desires, curiosities, memories, thinking and behaviors. Local and distributed circuits work together to sustain mental representations of the world we perceive, guiding our actions, social behavior, and adaptation to changing environmental conditions. How these impressive feats, still far superior to computations achieved by current-day computers, are generated in the nervous system remains a major unresolved puzzle, with profound implications in science, medicine, philosophy and ethics. Importantly, the onset and progress of neurological and psychiatric diseases are largely linked to the malfunctioning of some of these brain circuits.

To understand how the brain generates the different variety of neuro-biological phenomena, it is necessary to reveal the large-scale "activation patterns" of all brain circuits implied during learning, and their evolution in time while interacting with other circuits. To reach this goal, the major challenge is to track the activity of all the cells in the entire brain while performing specific tasks, yet no existing technologies have achieved that goal. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allows recording blood-oxygenation dynamics of the entire brain, but with the major drawback of not being capable to measure directly variations of neural activity. The fMRI is thus “blind” to brain activity and functional maps have very poor spatial resolution, without any knowledge on the specific cell types and circuits that participate during experience over time. New MRI-based technologies are needed to “directly” visualize cellular activity maps of the entire brain during learning experiences.

About the BRAIN Initiative

The BRAIN Initiative, run by the National Institute of Health (USA), supports technology-driven innovative research projects that can have a transformational impact on unlocking some of the mysteries of the brain.  Beyond basic research, the ambitious project also aims to open unique opportunities to test and track the effect of therapeutics on brain-wide circuit dynamics for the treatment and cure of circuit-related brain dysfunctions, thus providing immense potentials to tackle various human brain diseases in the future.