Skip to main content

For the First Time, Scientists Use Precise Imaging to Link Brain Neuronal Activity With Animal Behavior

November 16, 2016

Rong Chen, PhD, MTR

Using Tiny Cameras Implanted in Brains, University of Maryland School of Medicine Researchers Connect Neurons Firing to Particular Movements

For the first time ever, scientists have decoded animal behavior using precise imaging data about neuronal activity. The findings represent a leap that could provide researchers with a much clearer understanding of how brain activity translates into behavior, and might eventually be used to help treat some neurodegenerative diseases. The paper appeared in the latest issue of the journal Neuron.

“This is a real paradigm shift. No one has done this before,” said the paper’s co-corresponding author, Rong Chen, PhD, MTR, assistant professor of diagnostic radiology and nuclear medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UM SOM). “We have directly observed the cellular activity of neurons and decoded behavior based on these neural activity patterns. That’s incredibly exciting.”

The study was a collaboration between Dr. Chen and Da-Ting Lin, PhD, and Yun Li, PhD, both scientists at the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). The researchers studied a group of 19 mice, implanting tiny cameras into the animals’ brains. The device which was developed by the NIDA scientists, can record the firing of single neurons, allowing scientists to parse the complex links between neural activity and behavior.

The lens of the camera, which measured about one millimeter in diameter, was implanted into a region of the brain known as the dorsal striatum, which is known to play a major role in controlling movement. The device recorded the firing of about 200 neurons in each brain. Over a 15-minute period, the devices took about 9,000 measurements of each of these neurons, providing millions of data points for each mouse.

The researchers then took this enormous amount of data and spent several months, analyzing it with powerful computers. They teased out patterns that revealed a precise picture of which neuronal patterns led to which movements. From looking at these patterns, they decoded how the animal would move. The correlations were most precise in predicting the animals’ speed.

Dr. Chen says that this advance allows scientists to more or less predict behavior, simply by decoding the pattern of neuronal firing.

He and his colleagues are now working on strategies to improve the accuracy of the technique, as well as its speed. In the future, he says, it might be possible to do this in real time, predicting an animal’s action before it occurs. At some point, he says, the approach might also be used to decode human movement neural patterns, allowing people with diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), to move again. The disease damages brain and spinal neurons, and eventually leads to paralysis. “There are so many potential applications,” he says.

“This study is an innovative and exciting combination of brain science and big data,” said UM SOM Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, who is also vice president for medical affairs at the University of Maryland and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor. “This is a very fertile field, one that will yield insights for years to come – insights that will be useful for pure science, and eventually, for the clinic too.”

About the University of Maryland School of Medicine

The University of Maryland School of Medicine was chartered in 1807 and is the first public medical school in the United States and continues today as an innovative leader in accelerating innovation and discovery in medicine. The School of Medicine is the founding school of the University of Maryland and is an integral part of the 11-campus University System of Maryland. Located on the University of Maryland’s Baltimore campus, the School of Medicine works closely with the University of Maryland Medical Center and Medical System to provide a research-intensive, academic and clinically based education. With 43 academic departments, centers and institutes and a faculty of more than 3,000 physicians and research scientists plus more than $400 million in extramural funding, the School is regarded as one of the leading biomedical research institutions in the U.S. with top-tier faculty and programs in brain science, cancer, surgery and transplantation, trauma and emergency medicine, vaccine development and human genomics, among other centers of excellence. The School is not only concerned with the health of the citizens of Maryland and the nation, but also has a global presence, with research and treatment facilities in more than 35 countries around the world.


Office of Public Affairs
655 West Baltimore Street
Bressler Research Building 14-002
Baltimore, Maryland 21201-1559

Contact Media Relations
(410) 706-5260