Ascoli to Create Digital Inventory of Nerve Cells

Posted: February 28, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Lori Jennings

George Mason’s Giorgio Ascoli will serve alongside a team of researchers from Cornell University, Yale University, CalTech and the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) in creating a digital framework for the study of neuroscience. The team has a $1.5 million contract awarded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Giorgio Ascoli
Giorgio Ascoli
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Ascoli, a professor with the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study and Department of Psychology, will serve as the university’s principal investigator for his portion of the contract, which will involve the creation of a digital inventory of all three-dimensional reconstructions of nerve cells available in the neuroscience community.

The resulting database will eventually allow researchers to mine and extract valuable information on the nerve cells, essentially serving as a central resource of nerve cell data that will allow for valuable scientific insights on aging and disease states.

“This work will truly open up the field of neuroscience, similar to what the human genome project did for the field of biology,” says Ascoli. “Successful implementation of this work will provide the scientific community with one entry point to search, collect and obtain data on nerve cell structure.”

The project was initiated by NIH to establish a digital infrastructure, or “blueprint,” for the study of neuroscience. The resulting rich information base will give researchers the opportunity for secondary scientific discovery through the manipulation of primary data. The project, when completed, will create a nomenclature for neuroscience data and will include functional, physiological and structural data for the field.

The two-year project is endorsed by the Society for Neuroscience and includes a consortium of leading neuroscience researchers. The team will be led by Daniel Gardner of Cornell University, and includes Gordon Shepherd of Yale University, Paul Sternberg of CalTech and Maryann Martone of UCSD in addition to Ascoli.

Ascoli’s current work on nerve cell digitization will be published in the April 2006 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience in an article titled, “Mobilizing the Base of Neuroscience Data: The Case for Neuronal Morphologies.”

This contract is Ascoli’s third active award from NIH, bringing approximately $3.5 million in multiyear research grants to the university. Ascoli’s grant work focuses on the development of new computational techniques that are providing a greater understanding of how the complex morphology of nerve cells enables their function.

He also is working on understanding how the changes of neuronal anatomy similar to those occurring in Alzheimer’s patients may cause the impaired behavior of nerve cells at the basis of memory loss and dementia. His research will provide significant evidence about a basic mechanism underlying the neuronal malfunction that typifies Alzheimer’s and related diseases.

The Krasnow Institute seeks to expand understanding of mind, brain and intelligence by conducting research at the intersection of the separate fields of cognitive psychology, neurobiology and the computer-driven study of artificial intelligence and complex adaptive systems. These separate disciplines increasingly overlap and promise progressively deeper insight into human thought processes. The institute also examines how new insights from cognitive science research can be applied for human benefit in the areas of mental health, neurological disease, education and computer design.

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