BRAIN grant to fund study of how the brain learns

Emory Report | Oct. 27, 2016

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Biophysicist Ilya Nemenman (left) is developing theories about the brain that can be tested in the lab of biologist Sam Sober. Emory Photo/Video

How does the brain correct mistakes and guide the process of learning a skill? Why do some individuals learn faster than others?

Two Emory researchers – biophysicist Ilya Nemenman and biologist Sam Sober – recently received a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative to explore these questions through a theoretical-experimental framework.

Their research into how the sensory-motor loop controls and optimizes learning could lead to better protocols to help those dealing with major disruptions to their learned behaviors, such as when recovering from a stroke.

The BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) was launched by President Obama in 2014 as part of a widespread effort to gain fundamental insights for treating a range of brain disorders.

Emory has received other grants from the BRAIN Initiative: In 2015, a $1.7 million award went to neuroscientists Dieter Jaeger (Department of Biology) and Garrett Stanley (Emory-Georgia Tech’s Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering). They will use the award to explore neural circuits related to sensing and physical action. In 2016, neurosurgeon Robert Gross in the School of Medicine received a $5 million grant to focus on optimizing neurostimulation therapies for epilepsy.

The grant received by Nemenman and Sober is part of a new cohort, opening another phase of the BRAIN Initiative: The development of theoretical, computational and statistical tools. 

“Big data by itself is not useful,” Nemenman says. “We also need to come up with methods for understanding such data.”

Nemenman is working on a theory to help explain how the brain learns. “If you are learning something similar to something that you already know, it’s easier than if you are learning something entirely new,” he says. “We see this effect across the animal kingdom, including in humans. And this ability to learn something new changes with age.”

He gives the example that he will always speak English with an accent, since he is a native of Belarus and did not move to an English-speaking country until shortly before he became a student at Princeton. His children, however, will speak English without an accent since they were born in the United States and immersed in English from birth.

Nemenman is collaborating with Sober, who conducts experiments with Bengalese finches.

“These songbirds are one of the best model systems available for studying how the brain learns to communicate,” Sober says.

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