BRAIN initiative promotes exciting research on campus
In order to facilitate discussion on the impact of federal and academic initiatives on neurological research, Carnegie Mellon held the “Impact of BRAIN and Mind Research Symposium” last Saturday. It focused on the Brain Research through Advanced Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative, which awards academic institutions research grants to further brain research.
According to the White House website, BRAIN aims to develop new techniques for the prevention and treatment of brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and traumatic brain injury.
This symposium was the first of Carnegie Mellon’s yearlong “Crossing Boundaries, Transforming Lives” symposia in celebration of Subra Suresh’s inaugural year as the university’s ninth president. Its discussion panel included faculty from various departments and schools at Carnegie Mellon, as well as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Suresh said that brain research has immediate and practical effects in solving real-world issues.
“It’s not just an academic exercise,” Suresh said in his speech. “It’s a major day-to-day issue. More than 50 percent of all Americans over the age of 85 will develop Alzheimer’s. Combine that with other brain diseases … and the societal need for [BRAIN] is compelling.”
He also added that a significant fraction, about 20–25 percent, of U.S. soldiers return from wars abroad with traumatic brain injury.
Speaking on Carnegie Mellon’s and Pittsburgh’s roles in supporting the initiative, Suresh said, “Pittsburgh, in general, as a city, and CMU and the University of Pittsburgh as partnering entities, have played a leading role. The Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, which is a joint effort between the two institutions, has been a leader in pioneering research.”
Tom Mitchell, head of the machine learning department, explained his interest in how the brain deals with language processing. He highlighted an experiment performed in his laboratory, where an individual was placed in an functional magnetic resource imaging (fMRI) scanner — which reads the brain’s neural activity — and shown stimuli, each consisting of an image and a one-word caption. By running various machine learning algorithms on the data, researchers can predict which neurons in the brain are activated when other types of stimuli are given. These models show that the similar words trigger similar brain activity in most individuals. Another application of this model shows that in bilingual people, the same neurons are activated in the brain regardless of the language in which the word is presented.
Mitchell believes that the BRAIN initiative will generate a flood of data on brain activity while reading words. He feels that the “big opportunity going forward [will be to generate] subtle and comprehensive models of language comprehension by using not just one experiment, but thousands of experiments involving different people and different layouts.”
Nathan Urban, head of the biological sciences department, discussed the role of individual neurons inside the brain. According to him, the main function of a neuron is “to perform an analog to digital conversion” of continuous sensory impulses to spikes called action potentials in the brain.
Urban said that research has shown that, although all the neurons in the brain perform similar functions, no two neurons are exactly similar and interchangeable in structure. Just as no two snowflakes have identical structures even though they follow the same hexagonal pattern, he explained, any given neuron is unique, even though it may look similar to other neurons. Urban also discussed how neurons function in brains of people with autism, and overviewed research being done in that area.
Psychology professor Marlene Behrmann explained her research in neurological patterns behind facial recognition. She pointed out that people tend to look at the upper part of the face longer than the lower part of the face. Thus, when images of faces are recreated based on the neural signals triggered in a person’s brain, the upper parts are more sharply focused than the lower.
She also explained that people with congenital prosopagnosia, or face blindness, rely on clothing, voice and other external cues to identify others. In severe cases, they may also be unable to recognize loved ones. Research conducted in Behrmann’s laboratory has determined that, in such people, the fault lies in the propagation of the neural signals corresponding to facial recognition.
Emery Brown of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused his talk on the activity within one’s brain while under anesthesia. Finally, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy spokesman Phillip Rubin presented information on the BRAIN Initiative itself and the policy decisions that led to it.
Carnegie Mellon is poised to make a significant contribution as part of the BRAIN initiative. A successful partnership with the University of Pittsburgh — as manifested in the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition — will make sure that Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh have an important role to play in the upcoming revolution in the field of brain research.