Creating a dream team
By Tim Stoddard
Stephen Grossberg has been shedding light on the mysterious functions of the brain for the past 40 years. Now, the preeminent neuroscientist and artificial intelligence pioneer is assembling a different kind of central nervous system: a distinguished team of scientists from diverse fields who will work together to understand how brain function relates to behavior.
Last week the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Grossberg a five-year, $20.1 million grant to launch the Center for Learning in Education, Science, and Technology (CELEST) at BU. The center’s mandates are to better understand how the brain operates and to develop educational tools to advance the teaching of brain science in high schools and universities around the world.
Just as the three-pound mass of interwoven nerve cells in our heads integrates sensory information, CELEST will synthesize and coordinate several research agendas. Based at the CAS department of cognitive and neural systems (CNS), the new center will pull together scientists, educators, and technologists from CNS, the CAS departments of mathematics and psychology, and the ENG department of biomedical engineering. It also will involve researchers at the Center for Adaptive Systems, the Center for Memory and the Brain, the Science and Mathematics Education Center, the Hearing Research Center, and the Center for Polymer Studies. Other CELEST collaborators include faculty at Brandeis University, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania.
The central thrust at the new center is to better understand what the brain’s component parts do, and how those mechanisms give rise to behaviors, thoughts, memories, and emotions. One research effort will investigate both biological and psychological aspects of learning, from nerve cells up to animal behavior. Howard Eichenbaum, a CAS professor of psychology and director of the Center for Memory and the Brain, will oversee this effort, which includes research on how different regions of the brain enable visual perception and recognition, speech and language, memory, emotions, and concept and rule formation. Gail Carpenter, a CAS professor of cognitive and neural systems, will supervise the development of algorithms based on biological learning models for engineering and technological applications. Eugene Stanley, a University Professor, a CAS professor of physics, and director of the Center for Polymer Studies, is CELEST’s codirector for educational technology, curriculum development, and outreach.
Mind and brain
The key to understanding how the brain learns and stores memories, Grossberg says, is to study how the organ’s mechanisms give rise to behavioral functions. “You must have a theory that can describe the elements of the brain and how they interact, and how those interactions lead to emerging properties that map onto behavior as we know it,” he says. “Our department of cognitive and neural systems is the leading department in the world for doing that.”
In addition to studying the biology of learning at several levels, as part of CELEST several BU faculty members will develop algorithms and artificial neural networks inspired by the brain’s organizational structure for use in a wide variety of technological applications, including artificial intelligence. “The brain adapts autonomously to a changing world,” Grossberg says, “and a lot of high-tech research is trying to find intelligent devices that can operate on their own in changing environments. The brain gives us new heuristics, new design principles, new circuits for understanding how to make systems that can adapt on their own to a changing world.”
CELEST’s reach will extend nationally and internationally. The center will sponsor regular retreats, colloquia, and seminars for faculty and students throughout the Boston area to meet and share ideas about how the brain learns, and to discuss how to develop smarter algorithms for intelligent machines. The center will also run an annual international conference, bringing together scientists from all over the world to share the latest results from the psychological, biological, and technological aspects of learning.
The next generation
In addition to facilitating research, CELEST will develop new educational materials and coordinate outreach efforts in public schools. The idea is to train a new generation of students in the United States, and perhaps internationally, to understand the connection between the brain and behavior. Robert Devaney, a CAS professor of mathematics, and Stanley have collaborated on educational and outreach projects for years through the NSF. The two will continue to work together in these areas; all graduate students, postdocs, and faculty affiliated with the center will collaborate to develop new elementary and high school curricula pertaining to brain function. Boston teachers will be invited to take BU courses and participate in research projects during the summer. In addition, Stanley and his colleagues at the Center for Polymer Studies will continue to host a national two-week workshop for K-12 teachers.
CELEST’s research and educational goals are ambitious, but for Grossberg, an interdisciplinary approach is key to advancing the science of learning. He holds professorships in the departments of cognitive and neural systems, mathematics, psychology, and ENG’s department of biomedical engineering and is founding director of the Center for Adaptive Systems and founding chairman of CNS. Always the interdisciplinarian, he requires CNS graduate students to follow a “three-quarter rule” — they must cultivate a strong background in three of the following subjects: psychology, neuroscience, mathematics, and computer science.
Leading CELEST’s scientific dream team “will be a lot of work, but we’re really excited,” says Grossberg. “I think of it as a dream come true.”