Incoming Ph.D. student Sophie Brown, at front, and Ph.D. students Anusha Allawala, center, and Elaina Atherton look at calcium activity in 3D cultured neural microtissue, which is used for understanding dynamic cell behavior during brain development and disease. Photos by Nick Dentamaro / Brown University

Computational brain science center at Brown to catalyze research, train students and scholars

The Center for Computational Brain Science at Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science will harness the University’s expertise in computation, cognition and systems neuroscience toward new brain health solutions.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The human brain is a computational organ. It stores a lifetime of memories, recognizes faces in the blink of an eye, learns from experience, plans for the future and communicates fluidly.

To demystify how the brain accomplishes such complex tasks with precision and speed, a new Center for Computational Brain Science at Brown University will harness Brown’s world-class expertise in computational modeling, computer science, cognition and systems neuroscience.

Computational brain science students work in the Carney Institute at 164 Angell Street.
Housed within the University’s Carney Institute for Brain Science, the new center was launched in July to create collaborations between basic brain science researchers and engineers, mathematicians and computer scientists, and to bring computational neuroscience innovations to clinical applications and commercialization. The center emanated from the Carney Institute’s Initiative for Computation in Brain and Mind, created in 2012.

Michael Frank — director of the new center and a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences — said that computational neuroscience has been a strength at Brown for many years. The center, he said, will enable the University to expand as a hub of computational brain science research, more than an institution home to individual contributors.

“My hope is to go beyond what we’ve already started in this area, to make people a little bit more open minded and to facilitate a deeper understanding of the interconnections among multiple levels of computational brain science,” Frank said. “My vision is that this rich, interactionist approach will give rise to novel innovative applications that can better assess and improve brain health.”

Rigorous, collaborative research

Computational neuroscience is a multidisciplinary field that seeks to understand the functions of the brain at all levels — from cells to cognition — using principles from physics, mathematics, engineering, computer science, biology, cognitive science and psychology.

Some research groups at Brown already conduct research that informs or depends on computational neuroscience. However, the Center for Computational Brain Science will provide a more intentional structure for creating interactions among faculty and their research teams, Frank said.

My hope is to go beyond what we’ve already started in this area, to make people a little bit more open minded and to facilitate a deeper understanding of the interconnections among multiple levels of computational brain science.

Michael Frank Director of the Center for Computational Brain Science
Michael Frank

“The brain processes information, and you should use the right level of analysis that allows you to characterize that information processing — and how it goes wrong — to better understand what’s going on in affective disorders like anxiety and depression, disorders that involve delusions and hallucinations, and disorders of action and thought like Parkinson’s disease and obsessive compulsive disorder,” Frank said. “Computational brain science is the glue to help understand and connect different levels of analysis. In nature, it’s interdisciplinary.”

Thomas Serre, associate director of the Center for Computational Brain Science, researches the neural computations supporting visual perception. He is trying to determine how the brain solves vision to build machines that can see and interpret the visual world as well as humans do.

Serre’s project builds on 15 years of research developing computational neuroscience models of visual processing in the cortex. The Center for Computational Brain Science will allow Serre to leverage Brown’s expertise in this field while training students and early-career scientists.

“To me, this is all about training the next generation of computational neuroscientists to think across levels of analyses from circuits and networks to systems and computations, and to speak fluently the language of neurobiology, cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence,” said Serre, an associate professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences who also directs Brown’s Center for Computation and Visualization.

Cross-training and commercialization

One signature feature of the Center for Computational Brain Science is its fellows program, designed to enable the advancement of high-risk projects and ideas with the potential for commercialization or broader adoption by the scientific community or by industry. The goal of the program is to bridge the gap from science to application to improve brain health, said Frederike Petzschner, who will join the center this year as the first fellow and will lead the program with Frank.

The program will recruit early-career visionaries for three-year residencies at the Carney Institute. Scientists will include a mix of experts with computational skills — from scholars with expertise in artificial intelligence, machine learning or computational neuroscience, to experts with a focus on specific applications such as detection of neural signatures related to pathology, closed-loop brain stimulation, and impulsivity and suicide-prevention.

“We are recruiting top research scientists from both academia and industry to contribute to meaningful projects at the interface between neuroscience, machine learning and brain disorders,” said Petzschner, a neuroscientist with a background in physics. “The program is unique in that it aims to merge the best of both worlds: A strong academic basis for new discovery with the support and infrastructure typical for industrial settings, including seed funds, professional project management, team support, career development plans, and facilitation and support to build spinoff companies.”

The center will also provide cross-training in computational methods for students, basic scientists and physician-scientists. The center will host a two-week modeling competition workshop in August titled “Computational Cognitive Modeling of Behavioral and Neural Data.” The workshop will include daily lectures and discussions, hands-on coding tutorials and advanced sessions that provide a deeper understanding of complex modeling approaches, pitfalls and concepts.

Frank said the center will also enhance community engagement through hackathons, scientific symposiums and an interactive seminar series featuring world-class computational neuroscientists.

“If I close my eyes and envision what I would like to see when I think of this center, I would like to step into the Innovation Zone and see a group of active students representing different disciplines on campus,” Serre said, referencing the Carney Institute’s shared space for workshops, hackathons, data science challenges and lectures. “I would like to see machine learning and data science students collaborating with the neuroscience and cognitive science students and physicists. That’s my dream: a buzzing Innovation Zone with students collaborating on projects that would be beyond what any one of them in isolation would be able to carry.”