September 18, 2015

Brain scanner

Credit: Mary Dooe

One of the last frontiers in science is our most complicated and intricate organ: the brain. Unlocking the secrets of the brain could lead to better treatments for PTSD, new approaches to dealing with dementia, and the ability to absorb larger volumes of knowledge.

The tricky thing about the brain, though, is that it exists at the nexus of many different disciplines: psychology, neuroscience, chemistry, and biology (to name just a few). And you can’t make a lot of progress unless people in the different areas of research talk to each other.

That’s happening in Pittsburgh, where a massive project at Carnegie Mellon University is aiming to understand the three pounds of stuff between our ears. Researcher Timothy Verstynen is part of the project, called BrainHub. When he has a problem he needs help with, there’s usually someone nearby that can help.

“Let’s say I’m coming up with a way of trying to analyze brain data and I can’t really figure out how to do it. I can literally walk across the hall and talk to a colleague in machine learning who’s built an algorithm to do exactly what I need it to do.”

Verstynen is researching why we make the decisions we do, especially when we’re choosing between making a quick, passionate decision and a colder, more calculating one.

One example he often uses: how does a batter in a baseball game decide when to swing at a ball?

“That’s a very hard decision to make,” Verstynen says. “So, you have balls that are coming in right at the edge of where you think you should swing. But, if they’re a little bit farther outside of the box, you don’t want to swing. So, there’s this balance between these two systems.”

Across campus, Verstynen’s colleague, Alison Barth, is consumed by another question about the brain: How do we remember what we remember? Why do some things stick and some just don’t?

“I think I have a terrible memory,” Barth says. “For a long time I had all these different strategies to remember things… I’m fascinated by memory in part because it’s something that I struggle with.”

One thing that Barth has learned is that memories make imprints on our brain like fingers do on Play-Doh. Sometimes the imprint lasts and sometimes you mash it out and reshape it into something else.

“You experience something and it alters your brain,” Barth says. “And, it alters your brain partly because maybe you care about it… Maybe it’s because there’s a huge consequence: if you don’t remember it, you’re not going to get an “A” on the test.”

But we don’t know exactly how memories alter our brains. If we did, we could help people keep more of their memories as they age.

Marlene Behrmann, who helps direct the BrainHub project at Carnegie Mellon, says that getting to the next level in our understanding of the brain means bringing together experts who don’t usually chat.

Carnegie Mellon has set up “science speed dating” to develop unconventional approaches to solving the mysteries of the brain.

“So, we sit around together,” Behrmann says. “We have something to eat. But, mostly people get up and talk about what the sort of highest priority research issue they have; what they urgently need in order to bring that to fruition… And, invariably, somebody in the audience has something that can be really helpful to this individual.”

This is the moment, Behrmann says, to make that perfect match. The need is there. And science is racing to meet it.

“We all know - and we’ve heard over again from the media - about the increasing number of individuals who are aging in our society. So, studying Alzheimer’s, trying to get clinical trials, trying to identify Alzheimer’s as early as possible… We can make a difference. We can change people’s lives. We can transform society through this incredibly hard but exciting work.”

brain, Sci and Tech, Carnegie Mellon, neuroscience, Pittsburgh

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