We are exceedingly proud to announce that four UWIN faculty are recipients of a 2017 UW Innovation Award!  The University of Washington Innovation Awards “fuel the ideas that address problems of humanity while encouraging and celebrating creativity among faculty”.  The purpose of the awards is to “stimulate innovation among faculty from a range of disciplines and to reward some of their most terrific ideas.”

This year, four awards were given across the entire University of Washington, and three of the four awards went to faculty from UWIN!  Since the award’s inception in 2014, 13 faculty projects have received Innovation Awards totaling $3 million.  The UWIN award winners this year were: 1) the team of Bing Brunton (Biology) and David Gire (Psychology), 2) Jeff Riffell (Biology), and 3) John Tuthill (Physiology & Biophysics).  Each of their awarded projects is described below.

ModuBing Brunton and David Gire, UW Innovation Award winnerslating complex natural behaviors in rodents with direct closed-loop control of neural systems

Bing Brunton, Assistant Professor, Biology
David Gire, Assistant Professor, Psychology

This project will characterize how networks of neurons in different brain areas interact while an animal solves a complex task.  To do this, Drs. Brunton and Gire will combine large-scale, high-density neural recordings with data-driven modeling.  Their goal is to understand the dynamic neural computations that support natural behaviors. This will also provide them the unique opportunity to directly manipulate brain activity and influence natural behavior.  They will be developing a closed-loop electronic system in collaboration with the non-profit Open Ephys.

They state: “The hardware and software platforms developed as part of this project will be shared as open-source resources for the wider neuroengineering community. This cutting-edge effort will illuminate our understanding of how coordinated brain activity supports ecologically important behaviors, as well as contribute a network-theoretic perspective of brain function and dysfunctions that manifest as neurological and mental disorders…This demonstration is an essential step towards implementing targeted bioelectronics therapies for a variety of major neurological and psychiatric disorders”.  Their project addresses these questions by leveraging the experimental neuroscience expertise of the Gire lab and novel computational approaches from the Brunton lab.

Jeff Riffell, UW Innovation Award winnerGenerating mutant mosquitoes to identify the genetic and neural bases of human host-seeking behavior

Jeff Riffell, Associate Professor, Biology

Mosquitos can carry a number of serious human diseases, including malaria, yellow fever, Zika, and West Nile virus.  Mosquitos locate hosts using their sensitive olfactory system, and many vary in their preference for individual humans or other hosts.  Prior experience with a host affects future host choices, and many mosquitos can change their host preference if necessary.  However, there is no information about the neural and genetic bases of these behaviors.

In this project, Dr. Riffell’s work with mosquitos will use “cutting-edge genetic manipulations and new neurophysiological recording methods to identify the genetic and olfactory bases of host preferences in mosquitos”.  Additionally, Dr. Riffell will investigate how learning modifies mosquito behavior in regards to host choice.  Ultimately, one goal of this work is to determine if there are possible genetic targets for mosquito control.

Watch a fascinating video introduction of this project! (requires UW login).

John Tuthill, UW Innovation Award winnerUsing virtual reality to dissect the function of proprioceptive neural circuits during behavior

John Tuthill, Assistant Professor, Physiology and Biophysics

Proprioception, the sense of body position and movement, is critical for effective control of motor behavior.  Despite the importance of proprioception, little is known about the neural computations that underlie limb proprioception in any animal.  To better understand proprioception, Dr. Tuthill describes that we must: 1) identify which neurons encode proprioceptive signals, and 2) record from neurons encoding proprioception during natural limb movements.

Dr. Tuthill proposes to “overcome these challenges by investigating the neural coding of leg proprioception in a genetic model organism: the fruit fly, Drosophila“.  His lab has “developed new methods to record from genetically-defined neural circuits in the fly while controlling leg movements with a magnetic control system”.  In this new work, he will record from proprioceptive neurons while a walking fly navigates a virtual environment.

He states: “Although there are obvious differences between flies and humans, the basic building blocks of invertebrate and vertebrate nervous systems share a striking evolutionary conservation. These similarities suggest that the general principles discovered in circuits of the fruit fly will be highly relevant to somatosensory processing in other animals. A deeper understanding of proprioception has the potential to transform the way in which we treat proprioceptive and movement disorders.”

Watch a fascinating video introduction of this project!