Three researchers with the University of Maryland’s Brain and Behavior Initiative (BBI) are part of an 11-investigator team that received one of nine recent Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative U19 center grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). U19 center grants are among the largest awards given by the NIH.
The UMD researchers—Behtash Babadi, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Patrick Kanold, a professor of biology; and Wolfgang Losert, a professor of physics, the Institute for Physical Science and Technology, and the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics—are part of a five-year, $20 million project titled “Readout and control of spatiotemporal neuronal codes for behavior.” The project is led by John Maunsell, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Chicago, with approximately $5.3 million expected to come to the UMD researchers. Preliminary data for part of the grant were obtained with the support of seed funding to Kanold and Losert from BBI.
The project aims to improve understanding of brain function by providing a unifying account of how brain activity and behavior are mutually informing. Currently, research tends to examine the complex interaction of brain activity and behavior as separate problems, but the U19 team will examine how these two elements operate simultaneously: how the external world shapes the patterns of brain activity, how brain activity results in the manifestation of behavior, how the elicited behavior in turn reshapes the brain, and so on. In other words, the project provides a clearer picture of the brain in real time.
Neuroscientists have previously mapped what happens in the brain given particular sensory inputs (neural code) and studied how the different parts of the brain “read” the information contained in the neural activity to form behaviors like decision-making (readout). The U19 team’s research considers these two fields in tandem. The researchers will offer a unified explanation for the dynamic dialogue between neural code and readout—namely, how the brain simultaneously performs coding and readout to translate sensory input into behavior and to adapt its internal activity to the behavioral context. To address this, the U19 team will integrate various theoretical and experimental approaches, including single-cell resolution imaging, to further control and guide behavior by manipulating brain activity, with a focus on the three senses of vision, audition, and olfaction.
The team is composed of computational and systems neuroscientists, physicists, and engineers. From UMD, Losert leads the data science core, which aims to streamline and centralize data collection, analysis, and experimental design seamlessly across the various scientific projects. Kanold heads the science project titled “Determining which Neurons Contribute to a Particular Behaviorally Distinguishable Percept,” which aims to establish causal links between neural activity and behavior. Babadi is in charge of neural modeling, statistical data analysis and model-based experimental design for the three science projects. He will also contribute data science tools to the data science core.
The collaborative nature of this project is crucial to investigating the complex relationship between the brain and behavior, as it requires a tight integration of state-of-the-art optical imaging and stimulation, cellular electrophysiology, theoretical modeling, and large-scale data analysis. The U19 team’s unifying framework, which accounts for the simultaneous operation of neural code and readout, will allow the broader neuroscience community to resolve ongoing debates regarding neural coding that have been previously stymied by considering only half of the problem.
Other collaborating institutions on this project include the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health, the New York University School of Medicine, the Universidad Nacional de San Martin in Argentina, and the Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia. The connection with NIH strengthens neuroscience collaborations between the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland, and the University of Maryland in College Park.
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Writer: Nathaniel Underland
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