Zhang and Alloway receive collaborative grant to study neural systems


Nanyin Zhang, associate professor of biomedical engineering in the Penn State College of Engineering, and Kevin Alloway, professor of neural and behavioral science at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, have received one of two Grace Woodward Grants for Collaborative Research in Engineering and Medicine.

The research award is intended to support projects that create or capitalize on opportunities to use engineering in the life sciences and medicine.

Zhang and Alloway have received $50,000 for their project, “Optogenetic Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Awake Rodents.”

The proposed research will help scientists visualize neural circuits in the brains of awake rodents via opto-fMRI, a technique that combines optogenetics with functional magnetic resonance imaging. By stimulating neural regions with pulses of light, researchers will monitor how the neural network is affected when one or more nodes are directly excited.

The research will have tremendous relevance in optimizing interventions for neurologic and psychiatric disorders, specifically, Parkinson’s Disease.

A second phase of the research will again employ opto-fMRI, this time to track neural responses to fear exposure and fear conditioning. Researchers will study the neural changes that accompany fear conditioning, a valuable animal model for determining the neural basis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Optogenetics offers precise modulations of neuronal activities and thus has opened a new avenue for studying the neural basis of behavior,” said Zhang.

“A major hurdle limiting this technique from being widely applied is that most opto-fMRI experiments were conducted in anesthetized animals, and anesthesia can significantly compound the brain functions that we aim to measure. We recently implemented the opto-fMRI technique in awake rodents which has eliminated the limitation of anesthesia and paved the way to utilize this technique for interrogating the neural basis of behavior and the mechanisms that mediate neuroplasticity.”

Zhang and Alloway first partnered on the project in 2013, shortly after Zhang’s arrival to Penn State. Since then, the duo’s research has yielded a published journal paper and mounting excitement in the field. The support of the Grace Woodward Grant will further extend the research capabilities of the pair.

The Grace Woodward Grants for Collaborative Research in Engineering and Medicine are given annually by the Penn State Colleges of Engineering and Medicine, and are made possible by the support of endowments from the estate of Grace Woodward, a long time friend and supporter of the University. The program is designed to encourage genuine collaborations between engineers and clinicians or biomedical scientists that involve either new avenues of research or the feasibility testing of new medical devices, instrumentation or other diagnostic or therapeutic modalities


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Mindy Krause




The Department of Biomedical Engineering administers the undergraduate major in biomedical engineering, and is a part of the university-wide Intercollege Graduate Degree Program, offering both M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Bioengineering. Our work combines traditional engineering principles with medicine and technology for the betterment of human health and society. 

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