Professor Linda Restifo, a neurobiologist at the University of Arizona, is
doing research that hasn’t yet made headlines but someday could. The goal is the
discovery of drugs for treating intellectual disability. Although the work is
early-stage, Restifo and her team have created a research tool that could
accelerate it greatly. And the iBridgeSM Web site has accelerated the process of
getting the tool into the hands of other scientists.
The tool is a software program called NeuronMetrics. In disabilities like
Down’s or fetal alcohol syndrome, neurons in the brain fail to develop properly.
To see how neurons grow wrong, and how they might respond to various treatments,
experimenters can study samples of brain tissue from fruit flies, our genetic
cousins. But the photo images of the results are so complex that they’re hard to
analyze. Neurons have long, intricate branches for exchanging signals with their
neighbors. Trying to assess the state (and thus the health) of tangled webs of
"neurite arbors" can be time-consuming with only a modest number of images, and
prohibitive with many.
NeuronMetrics is image-analysis software that automates much of the task.
Developed by Restifo’s team with the help of computer scientists at the
University of Arizona, it was posted on the iBridgeSM Web site early in 2007. As
of May 2008, sixty-five other research teams had licensed and downloaded the
software, with more than 200 expressing interest in or asking for materials on
NeuronMetrics. That is a very good dissemination rate for such a
technology—which, by the way, can have uses beyond the study of intellectual
For now, Restifo is hoping mainly to build progress toward her original aim
of "enhancing brain function" in affected children, instead of just "assuming
that nothing can be done." For testimonials from Restifo and her university
about the value of the iBridgeSM Network, visit iBridgeNetwork.org.