Brown researchers awarded $12 million NIH grant renewal to explore fundamentals of brain function

Brown University's Center for Central Nervous System Function, part of the Carney Institute for Brain Science, has been awarded a $12 million grant renewal from the National Institutes of Health's Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) program. The funding will support the research center for the next five years.

With a focus on the genetic and neural basis for attention, decision-making and action, the expansion of research in the Center for Central Nervous System Function will complement Brown's broader scientific discovery at the Carney Institute in the areas of cognitive neuroscience, computational neuroscience, neurobiology of brain circuits and brain imaging, recording and stimulation.

"Our goal is to develop fundamental knowledge about higher-order nervous system function," said Jerome Sanes, a Brown professor of neuroscience who leads the center. "With this support, we will work on understanding fundamental properties in the brain from decision-making to sensory perception. The five new projects funded through this grant are models of a wide range of neural processes -- from making decisions to detecting objects in the world around you to going through sequential tasks in your daily life."

COBRE is a National Institute for General Medical Sciences program that aims to bolster research and mentorship of promising junior faculty members. Researchers at eligible institutions can apply for up to three five-year phases of COBRE support. Brown's central nervous system program is in its second phase, with an $11 million award in 2013 launching the center.

The new $12 million federal grant follows on the heels of a $100 million gift to the Carney Institute to advance work on how the brain functions as well as finding cures for some of the world's most devastating diseases, from ALS to Alzheimer's.

Sanes said that phase one COBRE funding focused on developing institutional research infrastructure and helping junior investigators establish research projects so they could successfully compete for other grants. The junior researchers from phase one published almost 60 papers and received approximately $20 million in additional funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation and private foundations, according to Sanes.

Research infrastructure work in phase one centered around establishing a design and analysis research core. This core, a nexus of experts and the technology needed for their research, is focused on developing methods and procedures for experimental design and data analysis across the COBRE projects, the Carney Instituteand Brown-affiliated hospitals, Sanes said. It will continue in the next phase.

While continuing to support junior faculty, the phase two grant adds a focus on developing and optimizing neuroimaging analysis tools to better understand the neural basis of behavior through a behavior and neuroimaging core. With techniques like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalography (EEG), the analysis tools will be a benefit to the broader Brown brain science community, Sanes said.

Phase three, if granted in the years to come, would provide support for the research cores and small, pilot projects.

"To have a successful phase three application in 2023, in addition to the project leaders publishing good papers, getting external funding and giving presentations, we need to demonstrate that the research cores are relevant and useful for the University," Sanes said.

Eight projects were supported during phase one, with a general focus on normal and abnormal attention and decision-making. They included, among others:

Dima Amso, an associate professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, studied context-dependent attention and learning in infant development. She found that both 6-month-old and 10-month-old healthy babies learned where to expect friendly faces from context -- a pattern of repeated shapes.

Dr. Wael Asaad, an associate professor of neurosurgery and neuroscience at the Warren Alpert Medical School, focused on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and how it integrates sensory information. He found this specific brain region played a key role in assigning cause and effect, which is critical for learning.

Dr. Eric Morrow, an associate professor of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry and psychiatry and human behavior, studied a rare autism-like disorder called Christianson syndrome using a combination of genetics, neuroimaging and behavioral observations. He complied the first diagnostic criteria for Christianson syndrome, including a signature genetic mutation and common behavioral and clinical symptoms.

Joo-Hyun Song, an associate professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, studied how multiple neural systems in the brain work together to weed out distraction when someone is reaching for objects of different colors. She found that objects that were slightly different, pink compared to red, were more distracting than objects that were blatantly different, such as blue objects.

Michael Worden, an assistant professor of neuroscience (research), studied visual processing in humans by examining cases in which the brain must adapt to conflicting visual stimuli such as arrows pointing in opposite directions that seem to call for incompatible responses.

Karla Kaun, an assistant professor of neuroscience, began her project in the third year of phase one. She studied the molecular basis of cravings and addiction and found in fruit flies that alcohol hijacks a conserved memory pathway in the brain and changes which versions of genes are made.

Phase two projects include:

Theresa Desrochers, an assistant professor of neuroscience and psychiatry and human behavior, will continue work she started in phase one on the role of the frontal cortex in monitoring complex sequences, such as making a cup of coffee.

Amitai Shenhav, an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, is investigating the neural foundation of normal and abnormal decision-making presented with many options, using EEG and MRI. Shenhav's work is also a continuation of phase one support.

Oriel FeldmanHall, an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, will examine the neural mechanisms of social decision-making. She studies individuals both with and without anxiety disorders make decisions about trusting other people.

Ani Eloyan, an assistant professor of biostatistics, will focus on how brain networks form, change and convey information. She is developing a computational method to estimate the functional connectivity of different areas of the brain using data from MRI signals.

Stephanie Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience, will study how humans perceive sensation, specifically the strength and number of brief events in the beta frequency (as measured by EEG) that are needed to produce a detectible sensation.

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