Conference to foster new partnerships, directions for computational neuroscience research

By Beverly Clark | Emory Report | May 16, 2017

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Emory faculty members Ilya Nemenman (left), professor of physics and biology, and Sam Sober, assistant professor of biology, are among the speakers scheduled for "New Directions in Motor Control," the first major event by Emory College’s Theory and Modeling of Living Systems Initiative, directed by Nemenman. Emory Photo/Video

Scientists and students from Atlanta’s three major research universities will gather at Emory May 18-19 to discuss and learn about the latest in computational neuroscience, specifically around new experimental methods and theoretical approaches to motor control research — a field with broad applications and many unanswered questions.

The Kavli Brain Forum Workshop, “New Directions in Motor Control,” is the first major event by Emory College’s Theory and Modeling of Living Systems Initiative (TMLS), a highly interdisciplinary collaboration that seeks to cultivate and expand research that builds theoretical frameworks for understanding living systems.

“Overall, the research focus of the workshop is on how animals control their movements and how they learn to do this. This is obviously connected to health: from developmental problems, to neural prostheses, to rehabilitation after a stroke,” says Ilya Nemenman, professor of physics and biology and director of TMLS.

“We also hope to address questions like why it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks — essentially, what it is that happens to the brain as we age that decreases our ability to learn new skills," he says. 

The focus this year on the motor control side of neuroscience is one where Emory, and Atlanta counterparts at Georgia Tech and Georgia State, have a great concentration of expertise, Nemenman explains.

“We hope to further catalyze collaborations within and among the Atlanta universities and beyond in this exciting field, and to showcase to experimental neuroscientists how computation and theory in collaboration with experiment allow one to ask and answer more exciting questions than experiments alone,” he says.

The organization of the workshop has been a direct partnership with Georgia Tech, led by Sam Sober, assistant professor of biology, David Hofmann, a postdoctoral researcher in physics at Emory, and Simon Sponberg, assistant professor of physics and biological sciences at Georgia Tech, with major support from the Kavli Foundation, an anonymous gift to promote theoretical physics approaches in biology, and additional funding from both Emory and Georgia Tech.

The workshop will feature national and international speakers from Harvard, Stanford and elsewhere who are leaders in the field of experimental neural motor control, as well as being experts in using computational approaches in the interpretation of experimental data. 

Scientists from Emory and Georgia Tech will also deliver talks and run workshops focused on cutting-edge tools and approaches to analyzing physiological and behavioral data. 

Initially, the organizers had hoped to attract about 75 people to the conference, but have been overwhelmed with 170 attendees registered so far, Nemenman says.

“There is a lot of excitement around this topic, which has allowed us to attract a large number of local scientists, including many students and postdocs, who will participate in the event and gain exposure to new knowledge and techniques to further their research," he says.