Math Neuroscience Prof Wins NSF CAREER Award

Mark Kramer explores brain mechanisms behind epileptic seizures

Mark Kramer is the third member of BU’s mathematics and statistics department to win an NSF CAREER award in the past five years. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Mark Kramer, an associate professor of mathematical neuroscience in Boston University’s College of Arts & Sciences, has won a $253,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award for his work in better understanding the brain mechanisms that drive seizures in people with epilepsy.

“I’m excited to use the award to continue our interdisciplinary research efforts to understand human epilepsy,” Kramer says. “We’ll use the award to build and analyze mathematical models of the human brain’s activity during a seizure. It’s a highly collaborative effort, which would not be possible without the support of my fantastic colleagues in the department, and amazing collaborators at Harvard/MGH (Massachusetts General Hospital).”

Epilepsy, the condition of recurrent, unprovoked seizures, is a brain disorder that affects nearly three million people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The brain processes that cause seizures are poorly understood, and in one-third of patients with epilepsy, seizures are not adequately controlled. Kramer, who says he hopes his research will lead to novel approaches in management of epilepsy, is the third member of the mathematics and statistics department to win an NSF CAREER award in the past five years. Sam Isaacson, an associate professor, won the award in 2013, and Uri Eden, an associate professor, won in 2011. Each year, the NSF gives out about 20 CAREER awards in the mathematical sciences nationally to tenure-track assistant professors (Kramer was promoted to associate professor after he applied for the award).

“Mark is an outstanding young colleague who is recognized internationally for his pioneering research in mathematics and neuroscience,” says Tasso Kaper, professor and chair of the mathematics and statistics department. “He addresses fundamental questions about brain rhythms, the onset of epileptic seizures in humans, the dynamics of networks of neurons in the cortex, as well as precursors to Alzheimer’s disease. His modeling work for these pressing biological and medical problems has led to important advances in the mathematical sciences, including for dynamical systems, differential equations, and statistics.” Kramer takes a multidisciplinary approach, Kaper adds, “working on joint research grants with medical researchers and biomedical engineers.”

Kramer notes in the description of his project for the NSF that while animal studies provide “powerful methods to uncover the potential mechanisms for epilepsy, how the results from these studies relate to human epilepsy remains unclear.” And while some mechanisms of epilepsy may be consistent in animal models and humans, there are also differences that are critical to understanding and treating the disorder, Kramer says.

To improve understanding of the mechanisms behind human seizures, he will analyze brain voltage recordings made directly from human patients and use that data to develop mathematical models of the activity of individual brain neurons and interacting neurons. From his NSF project description: “The mathematical models will then be used to study the biological mechanisms that support the different brain voltage rhythms that appear during seizure and how these rhythms move across the surface of the brain.”

Kramer is exceptionally gifted at explaining his field, Kaper says, and he will incorporate his research on the mechanisms of seizures into an undergraduate course in computational neuroscience, a textbook and online course in neuronal data analysis, and undergraduate and graduate research training in computational neuroscience.

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