The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Assistant Professor of Cellular Neurophysiology Wolfgang Stein a $510,000 grant to study neurons in the brain.

Stein, who has been at Illinois State since 2012, is shedding light on how the brain functions with the help of new optical imagery. By injecting a fluorescent dye into the cell, Stein and his team use a sophisticated camera to capture the image of a neuron at the moment it sends an impulse – or a command sent from and to the brain.??“We know so little about how the nervous system works and why,” said Stein. “What we want to know is how the nervous system makes sense of sensory inputs.”

Stein, who explores neurons through the Cancer Borealis crab, runs one of the few labs in the world that studies the neurophysiology of identified neurons with the use of optical imaging. The three-year NSF grant will assist Stein in studying sensory processing and the plasticity in motor networks.

Stein studies the neurons that control a set of teeth residing in the crab’s stomach. When the food is detected, sense organs send messages to the nervous system. “The neurons receive a certain input from the sense organs and make a decision about the appropriate response,” he said, noting there could be different types of chewing a crab might choose. Though actions like chewing seem automatic, they really stem from a conversation between the sense organs and neurons. Those conversations are sent via electrical impulses that travel between the periphery and the nervous system.

image of Wolfgang Stein in his lab

In his lab, Wolfgang Stein explains how impulses are sent to neurons of a crab.

In his lab in the Science Laboratory Building on North Street, Stein’s team varies the messages sent to the neurons and records the responses. “The goal is to see how sensory information is embedded in neurons,” he said. An ultrasensitive camera affixed to the microscope captures the image of a neuron at the moment it sends a response. The cells are stained with a fluorescent dye, which lights up in brilliant yellows, reds or greens when a neuron kicks into action.

It only takes a neuron a few milliseconds to receive an input and decide a response, making it difficult to capture an image. The camera Stein’s lab uses is so delicate, it can take several images as the neuron fires off its response. “It happens incredibly fast, of course, but this way we see how sensory information is processed in neurons,” he said.

Humans have millions of neurons in their nervous system, making neuron responses tough to track. The crabs Stein uses have 26 nerve cells that control the motor function for the teeth in its stomach. “Studying crabs has its advantages,” he said. “We know all 26 nerve cells by name. The simplicity is the beauty of the system.”

The information provided by his studies will help fellow neurophysiologists gain a deeper understanding of what causes all brains to tick. “This is a small, but certainly not simple way, to view how the larger system works,” said Stein.