Getting Technical: Methods in Neuroscience

It is an exciting time for neuroscience. The BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) is in the spotlight as a part of the new Presidential focus and recently received $46 million in funding grants towards its early efforts.

Aimed at revolutionizing neuroscience, the BRAIN Initiative sets out to explore the fascinating underpinnings of our three-pound enigma – the human brain! Some of its goals, among others, include:

  • Mapping out the brain at multiple scales, from micro to macro; in other words, a spatial resolution of the brain.
  • Understanding neural activity by watching the “brain in action” at both small- and large-scale levels; in other words, a temporal resolution of the brain.

Spatial Resolution

To understand the spatial resolution of the brain, let us take the example of “the spatial resolution” of Earth via Google Maps. Complex methods using satellites map out countries, while simple photographs map out streets! In much the same way, the brain can be mapped out from the level of synapses to the whole brain using a combination of techniques. Now, going back to Google maps, do you notice that when you’re zoomed far out to view the whole country, the street-level details are lost? And while on a street view, you cannot get the ‘big picture’ of the country? Similarly in brain mapping, when employing techniques like fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to study the whole brain, the synapse-level events cannot be gathered; and when peering into a single neuron using single-cell recording, the entire brain’s response cannot be predicted!

Temporal Resolution

Studying the time taken by several neurochemical events in the brain is equally important in understanding its role during, say, a brain disorder or a trauma. Given the techniques in neuroscience, some small-scale methods like optogenetics and electrophysiology offer a really, really quick response time in milliseconds! While the large-scale ones like fMRI or PET (Positron emission tomography) tend to provide data in the order of minutes. This should come as no surprise to us given that these large-scale techniques clearly have more neuronal “real estate” to cover in comparison to the small-scale ones working at a smaller, cellular level.



The myriad of techniques employed by researchers around the world in exploring the brain each has its own benefits and shortcomings in terms of its resolution in space and time. However, a project as revolutionary as the BRAIN Initiative brings the assets from these together, enabling each technique in putting its best foot forward, propelling the field of neuroscience into the future!


Images by Jooyeun Lee.


Anita met neuroscience during her undergraduate project, and it was love at first sight. While majoring in biotechnology at the B.M.S. College of Engineering, Bangalore, she had the opportunity to learn about biochemical subtyping as a method for biomarker discovery in neurodevelopmental disorders. She then pursued a Master’s in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at USC. During her thesis project, her interest in translational neuroscience further evolved as she studied a kinase pathway (PI3K) highly implicated in autism. She currently belongs to the Neuroscience Graduate Program at USC and works on components of the blood-brain barrier and its integrity in animal models of neurological disorders. Outside the lab, Anita is very enthusiastic about educational and scientific storytelling! Some of her parallel interests include consumer psychology and behavior.