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Pitt Researchers Awarded More than $6 Million in Neuroscience Research Grants

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 21, 2017  – Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have been awarded four grants totaling more than $6 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study diverse aspects of how the brain works, including how it does math, how we perceive the world and how we interact with others in our society.
 
The grants were awarded as part of the federal BRAIN Initiative, a large-scale effort announced in 2013 aimed at gaining a deeper understanding of the brain and applying the knowledge to prevent and treat brain disorders.
 
"BRAIN Initiative grants are highly competitive and represent federal investments in innovative technologies that promise to transform our understanding of the brain. The success of these researchers reflects the quality of the collaborative and interdisciplinary work being done in the neuroscience community at Pitt and in Pittsburgh," said Nathan Urban, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology at Pitt and associate director of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute.
 
The following researchers and projects were awarded grants:
 
Melissa Libertus, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, Julie Fiez, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Marc Coutanche, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, will lead an effort funded by the NSF to understand the brain’s ability to recognize visual number symbols by connecting them with the quantities they represent. This foundational skill that underlies math achievement could shed light on individual differences in math abilities. The researchers hope to use this knowledge for future intervention programs to improve math learning.
 
Most brain research in humans is carried out using non-invasive methods such as electroencephalography (EEG) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). However, we do not know how these broad observations relate to what we know from basic research at the cellular level. With the help of a four-year, $3.8 million grant from the NIH, Pitt researchers Tobias Teichert, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, Dean Salisbury, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, and Brent Doiron, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics, will study how the brain responds to repeated sound stimuli using computational methods in human and animal models. The findings could help us infer the underlying neural and synaptic events from non-invasive tests like EEG and MRI, thus allowing us to peer into the human brain’s inner workings like never before.
 
Matt Smith Ph.D., associate professor of ophthalmology at the Pitt School of Medicine, and Byron Yu Ph.D., associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, were awarded a four-year, $1 million grant by the NSF to understand how the sensory environment and state of mind combine to affect our perception and interpretation of the world around us. The researchers will use brain computer interfaces with implications for treatment of psychiatric disorders.
 
Pitt’s Avniel Singh Ghuman, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurosurgery, and Mark Richardson, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurosurgery, will collaborate with Carnegie Mellon University researchers Max G’Sell, Ph.D., assistant professor of statistics, and Louis-Philippe Morency, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science to understand how our brain perceives and understands the actions, emotions and communication of others. The NSF-funded, three-year grant totaling approximately $1 million will allow researchers to understand brain circuits in a real-world setting. Researchers will record electrical brain activity in patients undergoing neurosurgical treatment for epilepsy while they have natural interactions with friends, family, doctors and hospital staff. Ultimately, the researchers hope to provide much greater insight into neural processes that become dysfunctional in debilitating brain disorders such as autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

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