Spencer Smith, PhD, was awarded one of 36 grants, valued at $300,000, by National Science Foundation for exploratory technology development research. The Simons Foundation also awarded him and Princeton researcher Jonathan Pillow a $540,000 grant to support experiments using this new technology to examine how brain areas work together. These grants will support his objective: to create a two-proton microscope that will assist President Obama's BRAIN Initiative in eventually mapping every neuron in the human brain.
To date, Smith has created a prototype, and is currently constructing the next version, which will record the activity of individual neurons in two different parts of the mouse visual cortex simultaneously. This is not his first custom two-photon microscope. An earlier model he built shortly after arriving at UNC was instrumental in a discovery he made: contrary to what previous researchers have believed, a segment of the neuron called the dendrite has the ability to fire an independent electrical signal. Prior to his findings, it was believed that dendrites passively transmitted electrical signals from synapse to the main cell bodies.