Carnegie Mellon University
March 19, 2015

Brain Awareness Week

Brain artwork

The human brain is responsible for so much, yet so little is known about how it works.

Twenty years ago, the Dana Foundation established Brain Awareness Week to highlight the importance of brain research and how progress will impact everything from mental and behavioral disorders to debilitating diseases and education.

As the birthplace of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology, Carnegie Mellon University has been a leader in the study of brain and behavior for more than 50 years. The university created some of the first cognitive tutors, helped to develop the Jeopardy-winning Watson, founded a groundbreaking doctoral program in neural computation, and completed cutting-edge work in understanding the genetics of autism.

Building on its strengths in biology, computer science, psychology, statistics and engineering, CMU recently launched BrainHub℠, a global initiative that focuses on how the structure and activity of the brain give rise to complex behaviors.

Recent BrainHub research that continues to build a solid foundation to shed light on the mysteries of how the brain works, includes:

Discovering Idiosyncratic Brain Patterns in Autism

Published in Nature Neuroscience, a brain imaging study showed that the brains of individuals with autism display unique synchronization patterns, something that could impact earlier diagnosis of the disorder and future treatments.

"Identifying brain profiles that differ from the pattern observed in typically developing individuals is crucial … In this case, it opens up the possibility that there are many altered brain profiles all of which fall under the umbrella of 'autism' or 'autisms,'" said Marlene Behrmann, the George A. and Helen Dunham Cowan Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Carnegie Mellon and co-director of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC).

Understanding the Neuroscience of Somatosensation 

For the first time, researchers have linked a group of neurons to a specific type of somatosensation, a finding that can open the door for a heightened understanding about our sense of touch.

"Somatosensation is critical. You can somewhat overcome losing your sense of smell, sight, taste or hearing. But if you lose your sense of touch, you wouldn't be able to sit up or walk. You wouldn't be able to feel pain," said Alison Barth, a professor of biological sciences. "We know less about the features that make up our rich tactile experience than we do about any other sense, yet it's such a critical sense."

Reading Harry Potter To Identify Brain Regions That Encode Words, Grammar, Character Development

Researchers from CMU's Machine Learning Department performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of eight people as they read a chapter of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." They then analyzed the scans, cubic millimeter by cubic millimeter, for every four-word segment of that chapter. The result was the first integrated computational model of reading, identifying which parts of the brain are responsible for such subprocesses as parsing sentences, determining the meaning of words and understanding relationships between characters.

"At first, we were skeptical of whether this would work at all," said Tom Mitchell, head of the department who also noted that analyzing multiple subprocesses of the brain at the same time is unprecedented in cognitive neuroscience. "But it turned out amazingly well and now we have these wonderful brain maps that describe where in the brain you're thinking about a wide variety of things."

Why Learning New Tasks Can Be Difficult

Scientists found for the first time that there are limitations on how adaptable the brain is during learning and that these restrictions are a key determinant for whether a new skill will be easy or difficult to learn. Understanding the ways in which the brain's activity can be "flexed" during learning could eventually be used to develop better treatments for stroke and other brain injuries.

Byron M. Yu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering, believes this work demonstrates the utility of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) for basic scientific studies that will eventually impact people's lives.

"These findings could be the basis for novel rehabilitation procedures for the many neural disorders that are characterized by improper neural activity," Yu said. "Restoring function might require a person to generate a new pattern of neural activity. We could use techniques similar to what were used in this study to coach patients to generate proper neural activity."

Seeding Interdisciplinary Research

BrainHub's leadership is encouraging innovative research proposals that cross disciplines and engage the initiative's global partner institutions in search of novel discoveries in the wide open frontier of brain research.

They were recently awarded $400,000 in grants for eight exploratory research projects from the university's ProSEED program. Established by CMU President Suresh last year, ProSEED fosters collaborative, cross-disciplinary research in strategic priority areas for CMU, including brain, energy and learning science.

"Most revolutionary ideas in science are initially viewed as 'high risk.' As a university, we need to provide our researchers with an environment in which they are empowered to explore new ideas. By doing so, we increase the impact of our faculty and their work," said Interim Provost Nathan Urban, BrainHub director and the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences.

The newly funded projects include creating new methods for discovering biomarkers for brain activity, investigating new ways to understand the mechanisms behind neural functioning and researching the connection between the biome and the brain.

To celebrate Brain Awareness Week and keep up to date with the latest neuroscience research from Carnegie Mellon, follow #BrainWeek and #CMUBrainHub.

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