Brown researchers win $12M grant renewal to study how brains think

BROWN UNIVERSITY researchers have won $12M to continue studying brain activity from the National Institutes of Health. / COURTESY BROWN UNIVERSITY
BROWN UNIVERSITY researchers have won $12 million to continue studying brain activity from the National Institutes of Health. In the above functional MRI image of brain activity, areas in three separate experiments, each color coded red, blue and green, show a person performing a complex task, such as making a cup of coffee. / COURTESY BROWN UNIVERSITY

PROVIDENCE — Brown University’s Center for Central Nervous System Function, has received a $12 million grant renewal from the National Institutes of Health’s Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence, or COBRE, program, supporting research into how people think that could aid in treating psychological disorders and stroke damage.

“Our goal is to develop fundamental knowledge about higher-order nervous system function,” said Jerome Sanes, a Brown professor of neuroscience who leads the center. “With this support, we will work on understanding fundamental properties in the brain from decision-making to sensory perception. The five new projects funded through this grant are models of a wide range of neural processes — from making decisions to detecting objects in the world around you to going through sequential tasks in your daily life.”

The funding will support the research center for the next five years, extending several research projects, including those of Theresa Desrochers, assistant professor of neuroscience and psychiatry and human behavior, and Amitai Shenhav, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences.

Desrochers will continue work she started in phase one on the role of the frontal cortex in monitoring complex sequences, such as making a cup of coffee.

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Such tasks are more complex than, say, playing a piano, Desrochers said, in which a mistake made in the process interrupts the music the person is playing.

“If you make a mistake, you mess up the song,” Desrochers said.

While making coffee, however, she said, a person could experience a number of challenges or mistakes and still make the coffee. Desrochers is studying what’s going on in the frontal cortex during that process. She said the research could aid in diagnosing obsessive compulsive disorder and also people who have suffered a stroke in their frontal cortex, which often impairs their ability to plan out complex tasks and to care for themselves.

Shenhav is investigating the neural foundation of normal and abnormal decision-making presented with many options, using electroencephalograms and magnetic resonance imaging. He said he’s been studying why making decisions is so taxing for people.

“Some of the most difficult things we do is making decisions,” Shenhav said.

The EEG can study people’s brain activity moment to moment, up to the millisecond, which is the time frame in which the decisions Shenav is looking at occur. The MRI allows researchers to study where the activity is occurring.

Among the elements of decision making Shenav is interested in is the difficulty of making a decision with multiple distractions. He said the work could help diagnose and treat anxiety disorders.

Other research projects that are part of this round of funding included:

  • Oriel FeldmanHall, an assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, will examine the neural mechanisms of social decision-making. She studies individuals both with and without anxiety disorders make decisions about trusting other people
  • Ani Eloyan, an assistant professor of biostatistics, will focus on how brain networks form, change and convey information. She is developing a computational method to estimate the functional connectivity of different areas of the brain using data from MRI signals
  • Stephanie Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience, will study how humans perceive sensation, specifically the strength and number of brief events in the beta frequency, as measured by EEG, that are needed to produce a detectable sensation

Rob Borkowski is a PBN staff writer. Email him at