History of Computational Neuroscience at Boston University

Computational neuroscience has a long and storied history at Boston University, starting with the hiring of neural network pioneer Stephen Grossberg by the Department of Mathematics & Statistics in 1975.  Eric Schwartz, now a member of the Electrical Engineering Department at BU, introduced the term Computational Neuroscience via a 1985 conference and subsequent book published by MIT Press with this title.  Today we have over 30 computational neuroscientists on the faculty, making us one of the largest, most varied, and most accomplished computational neuroscience faculties in the world.

In parallel with the expansion of the computational neuroscience community at BU, a number of research centers and training programs have been created, expanded, and in some cases replaced by larger entities over the years. The remainder of this page provides a brief chronology of these events.

Center for Adaptive Systems (1981-present)

The Center for Adaptive Systems was created in 1981 and is an interdisciplinary research and training center whose interests intersect the areas of biology, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and psychology.  The Center performs interdisciplinary research aimed at discovering and developing principled theories of brain and behavior, notably concerning how individual humans and animals adapt so well on their own to rapidly changing environments that may include rare, ambiguous, and unexpected events. The Center also develops technological applications that are inspired by its biological models. Research and training are carried out both individually and through close collaborative relationships between faculty, students and postdoctoral fellows. These investigations lead to neural network models that clarify the functional architecture of different brain regions.

Neuromuscular Research Center (1984-present)

The mission of the Neuromuscular Research Center (NMRC), established in 1984, is to increase the understanding of human motor control and improve the quality of life for individuals living with neuromuscular impairments by conducting basic and applied research as well as by developing new techniques and technology in electromyography and biomechanics.  The NMRC consists of the Design Lab, the Motion Analysis Lab, the Motor Unit Lab and the Muscle Fatigue Lab, all of which are supervised by faculty members with a scientific staff of research faculty, research assistants, and graduate students drawn from engineering, medicine, psychology and allied health.  These four labs each have a specific focus; the Design Lab develops novel instrumentation; the Motion Analysis Lab develops and implements engineering and mathematical concepts to study the neural control and biomechanics of posture and locomotion; the Motor Unit Lab studies how the brain and spinal cord control the activation of muscle fibers to produce muscle force; and the Muscle Fatigue Lab develops and implements surface EMG techniques for objectively measuring muscle fatigue.

Department of Cognitive & Neural Systems (1991-2011)

The Department of Cognitive and Neural Systems (CNS), created in 1991, was one of the first PhD programs in the world to offer graduate degrees in computational neuroscience, offering training in neural and computational principles, mechanisms, and architectures that underlie human and animal behavior, as well as the application of neural network architectures to the solution of technological problems.  Coursework integrated the psychological, neurobiological, mathematical, and computational information needed to theoretically investigate fundamental issues concerning mind and brain processes and the applications of artificial neural networks and hybrid systems to technology.  CNS has led the way in developing biological models that can quantitatively simulate the dynamics of identified brain cells in identified neural circuits, and the behaviors that they control. This new level of understanding led to comparable advances in intelligent technology.

Hearing Research Center (1995-present)

In 1979-80 four neuroengineers joined the faculty and formed the nucleus of what is now the Hearing Research Center (HRC).  Today the HRC includes twenty faculty members from six departments in four Boston University schools and colleges. The HRC was formed for the development and dissemination of knowledge that will improve the nation’s auditory health and allow the fullest utilization of the sense of hearing.

The specific goals of the HRC are to encourage, develop, and support:

  • the highest quality of basic and applied research in hearing science
  • exceptional education for graduate students in hearing science
  • collaborative research and teaching activities among faculty and staff within the hearing science community at Boston University

Center for BioDynamics (1997-2011)

The Center for BioDynamics, which covered a wide range of topics in computational biology including neuroscience, was created in 1997.  The CBD was a multidisciplinary, interdepartmental center striving to advance training and research between dynamical systems, biology, and engineering. The CBD trained undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in leading techniques from these disciplines while emphasizing the integration of research and education, as well as the vertical integration of students and mentors at all levels within Boston University. Training was often done through involvement in cross-disciplinary collaborations and co-mentored projects. To further facilitate interdepartmental collaborations the CBD was merged into the Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technologies (CompNet) in the Fall of 2011.

Center for Memory and Brain (2002-present)

The Center for Memory and Brain (CMB), which includes faculty interested in both experimental and computational neuroscience, was founded in 2002 bringing together a group of investigators who have led research on the prefrontal cortex, medial temporal lobe, or both, using diverse approaches and different species.  The aim of the CMB is to integrate the strengths of its faculty members towards revealing the mechanisms of that interaction, and in so doing, pioneer a true systems level understanding of memory and cognition.  In addition, it has become increasingly clear that aspects of mental disorders reflect a breakdown of network functions of this brain system. Correspondingly, our characterization of interactions between the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe is fundamental to understanding the origins of mental disorders and to developing therapies that influence information processing in this system.

Program in Mathematical and Computational Neuroscience / Program in Neuroscience (2000-2009)

In 2000 two new training programs, the Program in Mathematical and Computational Neuroscience (PMCN) and the Program in Neuroscience (PIN), were created. PMCN served as a networking group and funded postdoctoral students to undertake interdisciplinary projects that linked multiple labs.  PIN was a predoctoral program that required all neuroscience students to do at least one lab rotation focused on experimental neuroscience and at least one lab rotation focused on computational neuroscience.  Over time the PMCN program was absorbed into the PIN program, then in 2009 PIN on the Charles River Campus and the Medical Campus’s Biomedical Neuroscience program were merged and renamed the Graduate Program for Neuroscience (GPN).

Training Program in Quantitative Biology and Physiology (2001-present)

The Training Program in Quantitative Biology and Physiology (QBP) was founded in 2001 and is based in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.  The mission of the Quantitative Biology and Physiology (QBP) program is to train Ph.D. research scientists who have: (1) a quantitatively-based understanding of the principals underlying molecular biology, cell biology and physiology, (2) the capacity to synthesize modern experimental methods with biology and physiology; (3) the capacity to synthesize mechanistic and structurally based modeling skills with biological and physiological systems, and (4) the capacity to assess emergent properties and behavior via integration across multiple levels (molecular-cellular-tissue-organ) of a biological or physiological system or process.  Some graduate students interested in computational neuroscience have been funded by the QBP.

CELEST: A Center of Excellence for Learning in Education, Science & Technology (2004-present)

The Center of Excellence for Learning in Education, Science and Technology (CELEST) is a multi-institution NSF Science of Learning Center created in 2004 for the purpose of synthesizing experimental, modeling, and technological approaches to research in order to understand how the brain learns as a whole system. CELEST strategically allocates funding to projects involving collaborations between experimentalists, modelers, and engineers working together to solve key problems in the neuroscience of learning. Projects include researchers from at least two of these three disciplines, resulting in research that (i) uses neural models to theoretically guide experimental studies, (ii) uses experimental results to improve these models, and (iii) translates insights from these experiments and models into technological applications.

Center for Neuroscience (2007-present)

In the fall of 2007 the Center for Neuroscience was established by BU’s President Robert Brown as a university-wide initiative to advance cutting edge interdisciplinary, collaborative research and education on the neural basis of behavior and cognition.  The Center pursues experimental and theoretical-computational approaches that span molecular, cellular, systems, behavioral, and cognitive levels of analysis.  The research aim is to expand the understanding of fundamental mechanisms of brain function and to translate these advances into practical applications including treatment of neurologic and psychiatric disorders and to develop new directions in educational practice.

Graduate Program for Neuroscience / Computational Neuroscience PhD (2009-present)

In 2008 Boston University’s President Robert Brown and Vice-President and Associate Provost for Research Andrei Ruckenstein identified neuroscience as a key area for development in the BU Strategic Plan and committed resources aimed at strengthening and unifying the graduate training efforts across the campuses of the University in this area. They appointed Shelley Russek from the School of Medicine as the Director and Frank Guenther from the Charles River Campus as the Co-Director of this unified effort that is now called the Graduate Program for Neuroscience (GPN). This unified program was created by merging the Program in Neuroscience (PIN) with the Program in Biomedical Neuroscience which was based on the medical campus. The GPN provides a rich training environment for basic research in the multidisciplinary field of neuroscience and includes courses that emphasize the relationship of the research to clinical problems. The GPN program also provides students with a specialized option in computational neuroscience.

Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology (2011 – present)

To create a broad sense of identity for the computational neuroscience effort at BU, a new research center, the Center for Computational Neuroscience and Neural Technology (CompNet), was launched in September 2011.  CompNet fosters collaborative research and education on mechanisms of neural computation and their applications and includes faculty from the former CNS department, the College of Engineering, as well as several other programs. The Center for BioDynamics is also being reorganized and its neuroscience component will be absorbed into CompNet.  Through its varied activities, CompNet builds the interdisciplinary community needed to address the complexities of contemporary problems in neuroscience using advanced computational and technological solutions, and to apply solutions learned from and inspired by brain mechanisms to technological applications. By fostering collaboration of investigators from disparate departments, CompNet supports quantitative research that overcomes artificial barriers that impede creativity and scientific progress.  By engaging graduate students early in their careers with interdisciplinary research and training, CompNet cultivates a new generation of scientists with the tools and knowledge necessary to address emerging problems in computational neuroscience and neural technology.