By Adrienne Law
It is not uncommon for neuroscience researchers to dream of one day making a breakthrough discovery that ultimately contributes to the world’s pool of knowledge about the brain.
UCLA has a program that can be a key to such success. The Neuroimaging Training Program (NITP) focuses on giving future neuroscience researchers hands-on learning skills and knowledge in order to succeed, said Mark Cohen, the principal investigator of the program.
He said he firmly believes that neuroscientists who are taught such techniques are the ones who are going to make the big breakthroughs.
The two-year program started in 2006 and is funded by the National Institute of Health.
To apply to NITP, the graduate student must be admitted to one of the following UCLA graduate programs: neuroscience, neurobiology, biomedical engineering, or psychology.
“NITP does not offer a degree, it is an enrichment to a degree in one of the above programs,” said Susan Bookheimer, one of the teaching faculty of the program.
NITP has a wide assortment of faculty in different subjects, such as neuroscience, psychology, and electrical engineering. In order for students to be successful in the course, they will need to know basic electricity and magnetism, integral calculus, statistics, and computer programming, Cohen said.
Much of the education is based off of having students apply knowledge they learned from the classroom.
It is not just the basics of cell signaling of the neuron, but also knowing what about the action potential makes it recordable to us. Students learn prior to the class that neurons have particular size and shape, and from the NITP program, will learn how to apply such information, Cohen said.
Students can also apply what has been learned earlier on in their educational careers in unexpected ways.
“Brain imaging, for instance, is where college calculus comes into play,” Cohen added.
The two-year program for NITP is organized in such a way that the first year focuses on training in the neurosciences.
There is a required course for all NITP students called research ethics, where students explore controversial topics of neuroimaging. Topics covered here are the implications of inferring what neuroimaging subjects are thinking and also detecting truths from lies by measuring brain activity in certain brain regions, Cohen said.
“The neuroimaging training from NITP gets really specific during the program’s second year,” said April Ho, a graduate student of the neuroscience interdepartmental program.
The purpose of this course, principles of neuroimaging taught by Cohen, and also the NITP program as a whole, is to give students a background on how to apply concepts common to different types of neuroimaging.
Students learn various imaging techniques such as those needed to interpret data from various types of neuroimaging such as EEG, MRI, and PET. The training is very technical, Bookheimer said.
Though the NITP program enriches UCLA graduate students, it extends beyond UCLA so others can learn from it too. In addition to UCLA graduate students, NITP welcomes researchers around the world to get the tools needed in order to succeed in neuroscience research.
Besides the two-year program, the National Institute of Health also funds an intensive two-week summer program offered through the same department.
The summer program admits about 35 out of 200 total applicants annually.
“Most of them who are admitted have experience in the field and have published their research,” Cohen said.
The summer program is competitive, yet those who do not get admitted could still learn through the webcasted classes. A benefit of the webcasts is publicity of the program.
“Last year there were more than 2000 viewers” Cohen said.
Ultimately, the overall experience of NITP has been very rewarding in the perspective of both professors and students.
“It’s a lot of work, it is very intense, and they really love it “ Bookheimer said.
“My experience in general was very positive. Specifically, what was very good about the program is that …it was really helpful with my research in starting a project,” Ho said.