Carnegie Mellon University
August 21, 2017

Carnegie Mellon Receives Two NSF Grants For Brain Research

By Shilo Rea

& Jocelyn Duffy

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded $16 million to 19 cross-disciplinary teams to conduct innovative research focused on neural and cognitive systems. Two Carnegie Mellon University researchers received funding: Max G’Sell for Decoding and Reconstructing the Neural Basis of Real World Social Perception and Byron Yu for Volitional Modulation of Neural Activity in the Visual Cortex.

“These grants are an example of what Carnegie Mellon’s BrainHub does best – bring together researchers from diverse fields like statistics and engineering to develop tools and technologies that will revolutionize our understanding of the brain,” said Alison Barth, interim director of BrainHub and professor of biological sciences at Carnegie Mellon.

G’Sell, assistant professor of statistics, will work with the University of Pittsburgh’s Avniel Ghuman to understand how the brain perceives and understands the actions, emotions and communications of others. The three-year grant totaling approximately $1 million will allow the researchers to understand brain circuits in a real-world setting. They will record electrical brain activity in patients undergoing neurosurgical treatment for epilepsy while they have natural interactions with friends, family, doctors and hospital staff. Ultimately, they hope to provide much greater insight into neural processes that become dysfunctional in debilitating brain disorders such as autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

For their project, Yu, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering, and Matt Smith, associate professor of ophthalmology at the Pitt School of Medicine, will use a four-year $1 million grant to understand how the sensory environment and state of mind combine to affect perception and interpretation of the world around us. They will use brain-computer interfaces, and the work has implications for treating psychiatric disorders. 

All of the NSF-awarded projects will leverage advanced research to investigate how neural and cognitive systems interact with education, engineering and computer science. The awards are part of the NSF’s investments in support of Understanding the Brain and the BRAIN Initiative, a coordinated research effort that seeks to accelerate the development of new neurotechnologies.

"It takes insight and courage to tackle these problems," said Ken Whang, NSF program director in the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate (CISE). "These teams are combining their expertise to try to forge new paths forward on some of the most complex and important challenges of understanding the brain. They are posing problems in new ways, taking intellectual and technical risks that have huge potential payoff."

Read the full list of newly funded projects.

Carnegie Mellon has created some of the first cognitive tutors, helped to develop the Jeopardy-winning Watson, founded a groundbreaking doctoral program in neural computation, and is the birthplace of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Building on its strengths in biology, computer science, psychology, statistics and engineering, CMU launched BrainHub, an initiative that focuses on how the structure and activity of the brain give rise to complex behaviors.