August 25, 2014

Salk neuroscientist Charles Stevens receives NSF grant under BRAIN Initiative

Two-year award will advance novel approach to understanding the brain

Salk News

Salk neuroscientist Charles Stevens receives NSF grant under BRAIN Initiative

Two-year award will advance novel approach to understanding the brain

LA JOLLA–Charles Stevens, a professor in the Salk Institute’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, will receive one of 36 Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) from the National Science Foundation to further research on how complex behaviors emerge from the activity of the brain.

The EAGER program, part of President Obama’s $100 million BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, aims to uncover how the brain works and potential ways to treat, prevent and cure brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy and traumatic injury. The $300,000 awards, announced on August 18, will support short-term, proof-of-concept projects.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity this grant presents because we are exploring a completely new way of looking at how the brain works,” Stevens says. “And if it’s correct, it will provide a critical piece of the puzzle.”

Stevens will use the funds to investigate the function of the olfactory cortex, hippocampus, cerebellum and basal ganglia, employing a cutting-edge mathematical theory called compressed sensing. He hypothesizes that in these four parts of the brain, which are especially focused on learning, a critical mass of cells is responsible for representing information. Much like a music or a photo file becomes compressed for storage, neural information is compressed in such a way that only a small portion of the data needs to be readily available for those regions of the brain to function effectively. Stevens speculates that the four regions of the brain he is targeting represent information in similar, but slightly different ways. At the end of the two-year grant period, he hopes to gain insight into how the brain uses compressed sensing and why.

The EAGER award will also allow Stevens to generate quantitative information, such as the number of cells involved in each area, and other knowledge critical for developing mathematical models of how brain circuits work. For example, he has already established that the mouse brain’s olfactory processing is contained in the output of 1,000 cells, but those cells then transfer the information to 100,000 additional cells, which allow an animal to learn the multitude of odors it will encounter.

About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is one of the world’s preeminent basic research institutions, where internationally renowned faculty probes fundamental life science questions in a unique, collaborative, and creative environment. Focused both on discovery and on mentoring future generations of researchers, Salk scientists make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, aging, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and infectious diseases by studying neuroscience, genetics, cell and plant biology, and related disciplines.

Faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel Prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1960 by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, MD, the Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark.

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