MSU neuroscientists and team awarded $6 million grant

Three MSU neuroscientists have teamed up with 14 other researchers from across the country on a project aimed to better understand the brain circuits that allow students to focus and pay attention. The team just received a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to aid in their research. The team includes James Mazer, associate professor, and assistant professors Charles Gray and Behrad Noudoost, all faculty from MSU’s College of Cell Biology and Neuroscience. Their lab received funding in September to join the project and study the “neural basis for attention” and “understand the prefrontal mechanisms involved in the enhancement and maintenance of visual signals.”

The project is headed by Peter Tse, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College, and features scientist from the the University of Nevada, Reno and Brown University in Rhode Island. Gray is co-principal investigator on the project. Of the scientists involved, seven are neurophysiologists, five are cognitive neuroscientists, one is a modeler and one is a neurologist. According to the project abstract, “the ultimate goal of the project is to develop a unified model of attention that applies across multiple domains, from single cells to large brain circuits.”

Much of how the brain works is still largely a mystery to scientists. Gray wrote about “how the analysis performed by each visual area comes together to enable a unified perception is one of the great mysteries of the brain and is often referred to as the ‘binding problem’.” However, it is clearly an important realm of understanding as the brain is the organizational mechanism and driving force behind all that humans do. This research, specifically, is important as focus and short term memory are crucial to successful behavior and survival of humans. It is this ability that allows humans to drive cars, increase productivity in the workplace, recreate or even perform research in the first place.

“Everything we do every day of our lives involves attention and short-term memory, it’s the basis of all cognition,” Gray said. It is also important as there are many neurological diseases which inhibit the ability to focus and recall things after a short time has passed. According to Gray, if these processes within the brain can be understood, there may be hope for treating “cognitive and psychiatric brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease” and others.

MSU researchers are studying the specific relationship between attention and memory, attention and eye movement and the pharmacology of visual attention within the overall project. These links are disrupted in common conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and schizophrenia. By gaining a better understanding of the brain pathways active in these relationships, scientists can better understand these disorders and possibly enhance their treatment.

The grant, and the research associated with it, have some incredible implications for the future of neuroscience. The grant also supports collaboration, with MSU researchers working with multiple scientists across the country. According to Mazer,“this grant will facilitate extensive collaboration between researchers with backgrounds ranging from computational biology to clinical neurology,” who are, “working at different levels, from single neurons to whole-brain networks, in an effort to solve a single, fundamental problem.” Drawing from the different realms of knowledge and expertise of each team member will allow the project to be even more successful.

Additionally, the project has goals to “develop lasting collaborations and promote future grant proposals, build research and industrial pipelines for neuroscience trainees, foster the professional development of junior faculty, and extend educational opportunities to traditionally disadvantaged groups, including Native Americans and low socioeconomic status students,” according to the project abstract.