Matters of the Mind-Faculty & Staff News - Carnegie Mellon University

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Matters of the Mind

Behrmann Says CMU and Pittsburgh Are Poised To Advance Brain Research

BehrnmannAlzheimer's disease, soldiers coming home with traumatic brain injuries, autism. These are just a few of the reasons that the federal government - and Carnegie Mellon - are focused on brain research.

And that was the topic of a Cèilidh Weekend symposium that kicked off the yearlong "Crossing Boundaries, Transforming Lives" series in celebration of President Subra Suresh's inaugural year at CMU.

The panel discussion highlighted the brain research being done at CMU and in Pittsburgh, which can play an important role in U.S. President Barack Obama's BRAIN Initiative. The Brain Research through Advanced Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative (BRAIN) is aimed at revolutionizing understanding of the human brain.

A key component of CMU's strength in brain research is the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC), a joint program between CMU and the University of Pittsburgh that has spent the past 19 years leading neuroscience research and education by developing new technologies and computational approaches to better understand cognition and behavior.

Psychology Professor Marlene Behrmann, one of several CMU professors who spoke at the brain and mind research symposium, will take over as CMU's co-director of the CNBC on Jan. 1.

Behrmann said it is an exciting time to be a neuroscientist - especially in Pittsburgh.

"We have the perfect confluence of all of the building blocks - technology developments, incredible equipment and computational and theoretical advances - along with a strong ethic of working collaboratively. I believe we really are poised to make significant scientific progress," Behrmann said.

"And that progress will begin to bear fruit for understanding the relationship between the brain and behavior and using this knowledge to improve the diagnosis and treatment of people with various brain-based impairments. CMU and Pittsburgh are so well situated to push forward in these areas," she added.

Behrmann began her career as a speech pathologist and made the change to cognitive neuroscience because she was driven to discover the underlying causes of various neurological disorders in the hopes of leading to better, more individualized therapies. She has since become one of the foremost experts in visual perception.

Her research combines behavioral investigations and brain imaging techniques with both normal and impaired individuals to identify the areas of the brain that are responsible for visual perception.

For example, she explores how the brain quickly and seemingly effortlessly works to recognize different people by their face and how the brain differentiates between different objects. She also studies individuals who are unable to recognize faces or to read words in the hope of understanding how the brain achieves complex pattern recognition.

Leslie G. Ungerleider, chief of the National Institute of Mental Health's Laboratory of Brain and Cognition who has collaborated with Behrmann, calls her face recognition work "highly original and of major importance." She said, "Not only has this work revealed the neural underpinnings of a debilitating disorder that is estimated to affect 2 percent of the population, but it also offers possible avenues for rehabilitation."

Behrmann also uses brain imaging to uncover what is happening in the brains of individuals with developmental disorders, such as autism. Her work identified a weaker brain "sync" between the brain's two hemispheres in autistic children that could enable an autism diagnosis at a very young age.

Also, by showing that autistic adults have unreliable sensory responses to visual, auditory and somatosensory stimuli, Behrmann took the first step toward deciphering the connection between general brain function and the emergent behavioral patterns in autism.

One of the aspects Behrmann enjoys the most about working in higher education is her students.

"It's very rewarding to spark their interests and help them discover their own passion," she said. "CMU students are more academically fearless than any other students I've worked with - they're already on a path to success."

As the new co-director of the CNBC, Behrmann is eager to take advantage of the Pittsburgh neuroscience community and CMU's support of brain and mind research to push the field to the next level.

"My colleagues are enthusiastic and exciting scientists, and we really have the raw ingredients to make significant progress," Behrmann said. "Plus, we've been doing this for two decades, so we are firmly grounded."

Online: Watch the panel discussion at www.cmu.edu/suresh-inauguration/symposia/brain/

Pictured above: Marlene Behrmann, who will take over as CMU's co-director of the CNBC, recently spoke as part of a symposium on the brain, mind and learning.

By: Shilo Rea, shilo@cmu.edu