Technological Advances in Neuroscience Research: An interview with Spencer L. Smith

May 15, 2019

Nowadays, more and more neuroscientists are taking the initiative to develop their own tech to advance their research. Whether it’s a custom bit of software to enable better behavioral tracking of an animal, or multiple laser systems to image their neurons of interest at depth and at multiple wavelengths, neuroscience is benefitting from an engineering revolution.

By incorporating custom components into their setup neuroscientists are gaining the flexibility to ask difficult questions and probe new frontiers. However, it comes at the cost of devoting time to developing these solutions.

At MCI-Neuroscience, we like to keep up with the neuroscience community on how they are using new tools and software to drive their research forward. Our goal is to enable researchers across the world to ask the difficult research questions that they really want to ask, now. And not be limited by their setup or by waiting for companies to develop technologies to catch up with academic solutions already in existence. If that means recommending a piece of kit developed by another company or an academic group, we will.

One of the ways we keep up with the rapid advances in tech is by following the Labrigger blog and twitter account (see our Top Ten Neuroscience Twitter Accounts post), a go-to place for neuroscience innovators to openly discuss, review and share technical knowledge on tool development.

To find out more about Labrigger and how its social sharing approach is speeding up advancing neuroscience research. And, to learn first-hand how innovative tools are being actively developed to better understand the brain, we spoke to its curator, Dr. Spencer L. Smith. Spencer is the Principal Investigator of the SLAB group, Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of California Santa Barbara, and Co-Director of the UCSB Brain Initiative.

What are the unsolved questions in neuroscience that you are trying to answer?

[Spencer Smith] One general question we’re focused on right now is: ‘How do multiple brain areas work together to process visual input and create a percept of the world around an animal, it’s place in that world, and how the animal can interact with it?’

This is a central function for which visual components of nervous systems evolved. Mother Nature’s solutions are very reliable, fast, and efficient. Machines have beat us at chess, go, and many other tasks. However, animals still beat machines in many visual processing tasks.

Why is there a need to develop new tech to advance neuroscience and our understanding of the brain?

[SLS] Often times we don’t need new tools. Existing tools, clever experiments, and insightful analysis can provide important answers. However, there are always experiments that are impossible with existing tools. This leaves many questions unanswered, or even unaddressed. New tools open new frontiers for experiments. New tools allow for further exploration, and discoveries that prompt new questions. Many (most?) scientific revelations were enabled by new tools.

“There’s still a lot of interesting technological headroom to explore.”

Why did you launch

[SLS] I was writing long answers to questions emailed to me, and sometimes I’d get the same question more than once. I used the blog to record my answers. It turned out to have more of an audience than I expected. I was happy to elaborate it because I hate to see people duplicate effort. We can use research communities like this to help people learn about techniques faster, troubleshoot problems faster, and ultimately get higher quality data faster. Blogs have leveled out in popularity, it seems. Twitter is more active, but the signal-to-noise is often low. Labrigger has material on both, and posts more frequently on Twitter than in the blog, but we still try to keep the signal-to-noise high.

What are the latest advancements in neuroscience tech that really excite you?

[SLS] There are many items under that heading. I should start with the NSF-funded multiphoton neuroimaging consortium I’m leading ( We’ve got some things to share soon. Keep an eye out for that.

The lightsheet community is exciting to follow. There is a lot of innovation and open method sharing. The optogenetics community and the indicator (voltage, calcium, neuromodulators, etc.) community are also quite open and proactive about sharing. There have been interesting breakthroughs in both, when progress had seemed to be slowing.

There’s still a lot of interesting technological headroom to explore. The UCLA miniscope project is excellent, and it has a lot of peer groups, both in academia and industry (though the former tends to be more open, naturally). Open Ephys is amazing. Code development is getting better as well. Things like CaImAn, Suite2p, DeepLabCut, Bonsai, and others have been widely adopted and beta tested in labs around the world.

Commercial development is getting better as well – not only making better products, but keeping their technology at least partially open. Vidrio has hit their stride with ScanImage, which has a free version, and it’s open source. Thorlabs is building great components and systems, and they share black box Zemax files for optical engineering.

Those are the things that I think have the broadest applications and are most accessible for the neuroscience community. The other things I follow are probably at least three to five years away from being ready for prime time in the broader neuroscience community.

If you took our stalwart standard ePhys set-up, the CleverExplore and you could add any components to it, be they: custom-made, from other academic labs or from other manufacturers, what would you add to it?

[SLS] Knowing me, I’d probably redo the optics from scratch with a bunch of custom items from our lab. And clear out space for lots of behavior interaction and monitoring instrumentation.

[MCI] For us at MCI, this is exciting to hear. Our CleverExplore system is modular, can incorporate optics from all of the big name suppliers, as well as our own specialized lenses and imaging components. And, by turning two screws you can remove the substage optics to convert the system into an in vivo rig.Our super stable anti-vibration tables also come in multiple sizes enabling the easy addition of many components to your rig.

We recommend following the labrigger blog at and on twitter @labrigger.

If you would like to find out how we could help you build a custom set up please get in touch with our expert team. You can also find out more about our bespoke rig building service here.