IRCN at University of Tokyo

by Vanessa Roser

This summer, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to conduct research at the International Research Center for Neurointelligence (IRCN) at the University of Tokyo. IRCN takes a strongly interdisciplinary approach to neuroscience research, and I experienced this firsthand by working with both the Takeuchi and Yazaki-Sugiyama Labs on a collaborative research project to develop a biohybrid neural probe for zebra finches. This project allowed me to explore the field of bioengineering, an area in which I had little prior background, while simultaneously deepening my understanding of neurobiology.

Boat ride with the Yazaki-Sugiyama lab family

Under the supervision of Dr. Shimizu in the Takeuchi lab, I gained an understanding of the genetic engineering and microfabrication techniques necessary to design and construct a neural probe to detect neurotransmitter levels in behaving animals. The probe design utilizes sensor cells that have been genetically engineered to fluoresce when binding to a specific neurotransmitter such as acetylcholine. These cells are encapsulated in the tip of the probe along with a small optical fiber for injection into the brain. The resulting light levels from these sensor cells can then be recorded to track the fluctuations of neurotransmitter levels in real time as an animal responds to a particular stimulus. In my previous lab experience, I had often conducted experiments that utilized implantable technology such as electrodes or photometric fibers to analyze the brain, but I had never explored the process of designing such technologies to be used in future research. Working on this project allowed me to gain valuable perspective on how developments across different research disciplines must build on each other to create new discoveries about the brain.

Diagram of biohybrid probe design

While I had little experience with the engineering techniques required to construct the probe, I was able to utilize my background in neuroscience in the Yazaki-Sugiyama lab, where I received surgical training to implant the biohybrid probe as well as assisting in behavioral experiments with the zebra finches. One research focus in the Yazaki-Sugiyama lab is how experience shapes the brain circuitry involved in song memory and production, a topic that could provide powerful insights into human language acquisition. As I learned in the beginning of my internship, zebra finches are uniquely useful model organisms to explore these questions because songbirds acquire their ability to make a complex songs by mimicking tutor songs during a specific critical period, much like how human infants learn a language from hearing their caregivers’ voices. The Yazaki-Sugiyama lab explores how this early experience shapes song memory and development by pairing young zebra finches with caregivers of different finch species, which profoundly alters the resulting song.

Zebra Finch song recordings with different tutor species

Alongside my research experience, I was able to explore the wonderful city of Tokyo and gain a deeper understanding of Japan. After studying two years of college-level Japanese language studies, I was very eager to experience a culture I had learned about in a classroom setting first-hand (and get some conversation practice!) During the two months of my program, I set myself the goal of experiencing something new each day, whether it was trying a different food, visiting a new area of the city, learning new Japanese words, or meeting a new person, a task which I found surprisingly easy to accomplish. In Tokyo, there always seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of exciting things to do, and I found that my days never fell into a strict routine. In a summer full of wonderful experiences, whether it be the electric energy of a Taiko drumming concert, getting lost in the glimmering skyline at Tokyo Skytree, or relaxing at an onsen in the rain, I will treasure most the connections that I made with people during my time in Japan. There are many small moments that made my time special, such as the night a street vendor handed over the tongs and taught us how to grill our own mochi and the many friendships with people with whom I will keep in touch long after this summer. I felt truly cared for by both the IRCN i-team staff as well as the members of my lab, and I am grateful for the time they put into making sure that I had a positive experience. The quality of mentorship that I received at IRCN made this summer a truly invaluable academic opportunity. I would like to thank Ijiri-san, Yazaki-Sugiyama-sensei, Shimizu-sensei and Dr. Matt Louder for welcoming to IRCN this summer, as well as Dr. Takao Hensch, Dr. Gavin Whitelaw, and the staff at the Reischauer Institute for providing such an incredible study abroad program. Lastly, I would like to thank the members of the Friends of the University of Tokyo for their generous support of my internship experience this summer.