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BU-Led Neuroscientists Get $7.5 Million from US Navy

CAS prof oversees multicenter effort on brain’s rule learning


Learning new rules is a part of life. The rules may be simple, like stopping at a red light. Or they might be a bit more complex. Sometimes, for instance, you can turn right at a red light, unless there’s a sign saying you can’t, but only in certain states, and not when a pedestrian is crossing the street. Most human brains learn complex rules like these, and their myriad exceptions, with seeming ease. But how they do this has puzzled neuroscientists for decades.

“So much of human behavior is guided by rules,” says Michael Hasselmo, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of BU’s Center for Systems Neuroscience. “But how do brain circuits mediate learning rules of different types? To me, this is a central question of brain research.”

Hasselmo is the principal investigator on a five-year, $7.5 million Office of Naval Research (ONR) grant to investigate, broadly, the question of exactly how human brains learn rules, and how this might be translated into computer programs, especially for autonomous systems. “If we understand this, it could massively enhance the capability of computers,” he says.

The grant was awarded as part of the ONR’s Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative program, or MURI, which supports team research involving more than one traditional scientific discipline, according to the Department of Defense. Most of the program’s efforts involve researchers from multiple academic institutions and academic departments. Hasselmo will oversee a team that includes Marc Howard and Chantal Stern, both CAS professors of psychological and brain sciences, as well as researchers from Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The award provides $4.5 million over the first three years, with the option to renew for an additional two years.

“One of the most exciting things about the MURI awards is the opportunity to work with exceptionally talented researchers across different universities,” according to Stern. “For the current MURI, I am excited to be collaborating with MIT researcher Earl Miller and Brown University researcher David Badre.”

The research will focus on two areas of the brain associated with learning: the prefontal cortex, known to be critical for working memory and for gating (the process by which the channel in a cell membrane opens or closes) memories in and out of the rest of the cerebral cortex, and the basal ganglia, which most people associate with movement and motor function. The scientists will investigate how the basal ganglia perform the mental action of loading working memories into the correct part of the brain, Hasselmo says.

He will oversee the development of computational models of neural circuits used in learning, while Badre and Stern will use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brain in humans as they learn. Badre will examine how the brain learns tasks using rules involving matching of letters and symbols; Stern will study how people learn new rules and changes in rules by trial and error. Stern will use BU’s newly acquired MRI scanner, the centerpiece of a new Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging, to be housed in BU’s Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering (CILSE). The center is scheduled to open in spring 2017.

Stern notes that the National Science Foundation award for the MRI system arrived the same week as the MURI award notice, “which was a great start to the academic year,” she says.

For Hasselmo, the MURI award, coupled with the new neuroimaging facilities, will help open new windows onto the deepest mysteries of the brain. “To me, it’s just fascinating to try to figure this out,” he says. “Neurons are single cells with no individual cognitive ability, yet their interactions underlie every single action we take, every single belief we have. It’s fascinating to investigate how it comes together.”

Barbara Moran, Senior Science Writer
Barbara Moran

Barbara Moran can be reached at bmoran@bu.edu.

One Comment on BU-Led Neuroscientists Get $7.5 Million from US Navy

  • R.A. Erbetta, Captain, U.S. Navy (retired) on 12.13.2016 at 9:20 am

    “BZ” for the Navy (ONR) in sponsoring this important work. I would be interested to know if some of this research might shed light on the issues surrounding Alzheimer’s disease and dementia diagnosis and treatment. Good luck and carry on!

    R/R.A. Erbetta
    Marblehead, MA

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