How do electronic signals in the brain translate to experiences? It’s the “hard question of consciousness.” What happens in our brain when we make the choices we do? Scientists at UMass Amherst are working to solve pieces of the puzzle, funded in part through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, a pioneering national program that aims to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain.
“The goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to really understand the parts of the brain at the cellular level,” says Paul Katz, professor and director of neuroscience. To that end, Katz and his team of colleagues at research centers from Harvard to San Diego are working to create a wiring diagram of an entire
brain—albeit that of a sea slug, which contains 4,000 neurons, compared to a human’s 100 billion. Using techniques including electron microscopy and dyes that alter the absorption of light, the researchers can see individual connections between neurons, enabling them to build an atlas of the brain, with a map and annotations citing which genes are expressed. Unlike current brain mapping, which can define neurons but can’t distinguish behavior, says Katz, “We’ll be able to look at the whole brain and see how neural activity gets translated into how the animal makes choices.”
“The research has potential application in motion sensing, such as in self-driving cars, and eventually,” Katz hopes, “will better our understanding of how our own brains process information and make decisions.” It’s also critical to the work of other UMass Amherst researchers such as Kirby Deater-Deckard, professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Healthy Development Initiative, a Springfield-based research lab that collaborates with the community to study the spectrum of developmental norms and challenges across the lifespan.
“Everything we’re doing is deeply informed by the science of neural circuits,” says Deater-Deckard. His efforts to understand the circuitry connected with learning and behavioral disorders in children are being enhanced through a groundbreaking imaging tool called fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy), a relatively non-invasive, low-cost method of directly and indirectly monitoring brain activity. “This leading edge technology allows us to directly image the activity of groups of cells and to reach a much larger and more representative group of participants,” he says.
Because fNIRS is both flexible and portable, it can be used on young children and others unable to tolerate technologies that require participants to stay motionless for long periods of time, such as an MRI. That gives researchers improved access to patients with disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and enables researchers to study adolescents when they’re interactive and making decisions—while driving a car or texting their friends, for example. “Through fNIRS we can study mental illness at very early manifestations,” says professor of psychological and brain sciences Adam Grabell, who directs the campus’s Self-Regulation, Emotions, & Early Development (SEED) Laboratory and is leading the use of fNIRS technology at the university. “We can learn how emotion regulation works mechanistically, which could inform therapeutic practices down the road.”
Grabell’s work has revealed that the relationship between activity in young children’s pre-frontal cortex and their level of irritability isn’t linear as might be expected, but more complex. “The field used to think of mental illness as very categorical—you have it or you don’t,” explains Grabell. “This gives us more information about the full normal to abnormal spectrum. In time this could help us determine a brain-based rationale for clinical decisions.”
While fNIRS technology is still “kind of the Wild West,” says Grabell, he expects it to continue to explode in popularity as the field establishes itself. To that point, he and Deater-Deckard were recently awarded a multi-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Developmental Sciences program to use fNIRS to study how nervous system coordination between brain and heart activity regulates thoughts, emotions and behaviors during early childhood (3 to 5 years old)—a period of rapid development. They will collaborate with preschools throughout the Pioneer Valley to provide hands-on experiences with students and school personnel. They expect the findings will be informative for early childhood educators and policymakers.