An innovative approach to brain research developed by a scientist at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston has been selected for funding by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiative designed to support high-impact, medical investigations.
Valentin Dragoi, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the UT Medical School at Houston, has been awarded a four-year, $1.2 million grant through the initiative called Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration (EUREKA). The project is titled "Real-time population coding underlying behavioral decisions."
His approach to studying the brain could further the understanding of dissociative disorders that affect about one in 20 Americans.
Dragoi focuses on a region of the brain known as the cerebral cortex, which is a slender carpet of nerve cells or neurons that covers the cerebrum and plays a major role in sight, hearing and motor skills.
The brain is amazingly difficult to interpret because of the high degree of interconnectivity among brain networks, Dragoi said. For instance, sensory inputs are successfully processed by neuronal networks in different cortical areas. Each cortical area consists of multiple layers that contain characteristic patterns of connections with other cortical regions.
Whereas previous research has focused on individual neurons, Dragoi proposes to study the signals of populations of neurons in different regions of the cerebral cortex including visual cortex and high-level cortical areas. Tests will be conducted in an animal model.
"Examining how populations of neurons in multiple cortical areas interact to produce behavior may significantly increase our understanding of how neuronal networks operate in both normal and dysfunctional states," he said.
Dragoi said, "We made tremendous progress in understanding the language of individual neurons. Yet, how populations of cells communicate among each other to control behavior is virtually unknown. The new challenge in neuroscience is to decipher the language of populations of brain cells."
During the experiments, large populations of neurons will be recorded simultaneously using multiple, high-density electrode arrays in three key cortical areas involved in perceptual decisions, Dragoi said. "The experiments that we will perform have the potential to provide key insight into the dynamic transformations of the population code during a behavioral task," he said.
"Although the idea that behavior emerges from interactions among neuronal networks is not new, it has never been tested empirically under the framework of population coding," he said.
"The EUREKA award to Valentin Dragoi will be a major boost to his research on understanding the operation of normal and dysfunctional brain cortical neuronal networks and their impact on the decision-making processes of the brain. We can look forward to many significant scientific breakthroughs from this outstanding young scientist," said John H. Byrne, Ph.D., June and Virgil Waggoner Chair and chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the UT Medical School at Houston
"It is a great honor for him, the department and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. The fact that only a few grants were awarded within the entire National Institutes of Health is an indicator of the competitiveness of our neuroscience research program at the national level," Byrne said.
To receive a EUREKA grant, a research proposal must be linked to the mission of one of the NIH institutes. Dragoi's research is connected to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Valentin Dragoi received his doctorate at Duke University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a recipient of numerous awards including the James S. McDonnell Award, the Pew Scholar Award and the Merck Award.