Emory-led consortium explores brain and behavior, across the tree of life

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | June 16, 2020

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“Our consortium will create tools to study motor control in any species or behavior,” says Emory biologist Samuel Sober, co-director of the new consortium, funded by the Simons Foundation.

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The Simons Foundation awarded scientists from Emory University and their collaborators $2.5 million to develop new tools to study how the brain controls behavior in vertebrates. Named the Simons-Emory International Consortium on Motor Control, the project brings together eight research groups from three countries that use cutting-edge techniques to explore connections between the firing of neurons and the movement of muscles. Their work spans a range of behaviors in an array of species, from songbirds and monkeys to rats and mice.

The consortium will kick off with a virtual symposium on Friday, June 26, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. EDT. Eight neuroscientists will each give a 10-minute talk about a not-yet-invented tool they wish they had today to transform the field. The speakers will include Chethan Pandarinath and Lena Ting (both from Emory and Georgia Tech), Amy Bastian (Kennedy Krieger Institute), Rui Costa (Columbia University), Amy Orsborn (University of Washington), Andrew Pruszynski (Western University) and Philip Sabes (from the University of California San Francisco and Neuralink). The talks will stream live on YouTube, and registrants from around the world can ask questions in real-time via an online chat feature.

The symposium’s theme reflects the ambitious goals of the consortium. “Often in neuroscience, labs are working on one species in relative isolation,” says Samuel Sober, director of the new consortium and an Emory associate professor of biology. “Our consortium is unique because our members are investigating not just different species but different motor skills, from how songbirds vocalize to how monkeys move their arms. And we’re working together to develop new methods and apply them to a really wide range of problems.”

Sober’s lab, for instance, developed technology for recording and analyzing how the precise timing of neurons firing controls vocal behavior in songbirds. “Our consortium will create tools to study motor control in any species or behavior,” Sober says. “We will provide a framework to allow researchers to reveal the mechanisms of motor agility across the tree of life.”

The Simons Foundation is a leading, private philanthropical organization dedicated to advancing research in basic science and mathematics.

Solving mysteries about how the brain and muscles of different animals work together may one day benefit humans dealing with neural system injuries, says Gordon Berman, co-director of the consortium and an Emory assistant professor of biology.

“Motion and movement are the basic building blocks of behavior,” he says. “I view the consortium’s work as a critical, early component to ultimately map what you’re thinking in your head to actually producing a movement. Such insights could help in the design of prosthetic limbs that move in response to a person’s thoughts or computer interfaces that assist people with spinal cord injuries.”

Berman’s research group uses tools from theoretical and computational biophysics to understand how changes in neural activity affect how animals move and vice versa.

“One thing I’m particularly interested in is how those patterns change over the course of learning a skill,” Berman says. “I play the piano. As I learn a new piece of music how does the code between my brain and my fingers change?”

Other members of the consortium include Chethan Pandarinath, assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Neurosurgery and in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. His group is using sophisticated methods of artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand how large networks of neurons in the brain encode information and control behavior.

A fourth consortium member from Emory is Ilya Nemenman, professor of physics, and a pioneer in developing algorithms for analyzing the information content of biological signals.

Additional members include Megan Carey (Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Portugal), Rui Costa (Columbia University), Abigail Person (University of Colorado, Denver) and Andrew Pruszynski (Western University in Canada).

“By sharing new tools, algorithms and ideas through research collaborations, group meetings and a joint post-doctoral training program, we will transform how neuroscientists explore motor behavior,” Sober says.

In addition to streaming live, the June 26 symposium, “The Inaugural Simons-Emory Workshop on Motor Control,” will be recorded and remain on YouTube for future reference. The symposium will be the third in a series of virtual events sponsored by the Emory College of Arts and Sciences’ Theory and Modeling in Living Systems initiative.