On Friday, Nov. 30, the first annual Computational Neuroimaging and Neuroengineering Symposium (CNNS) was hosted at the UCR Alumni and Visitors Center by Megan Peters, assistant professor of bioengineering.  The event aimed to bring together computational neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, bioengineers, electrical engineers and computer scientists to share their research and findings.

Peters stated, “The discovery of how our brains work to encode and process information, and the anatomical structures underlying these abilities, by definition requires constant input from all these diverse disciplines.”

The symposium featured various keynote speakers, including Chancellor’s Professor of Psychology from UC Berkeley Jack Gallant, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science from UC San Diego Angela Yu, and computational neuroscientist from UCSC Laurent Itti.

Gallant, the first keynote speaker of the symposium, began his speech proposing a solution to a common problem researchers face in the field of computational neuroscience.

He said, “I like to do naturalistic experiments because I want to build a model that describes how the brain operates under naturalistic conditions. I am concerned that if I use simple conditions to build that model then the model won’t generalize and won’t predict responses under natural conditions. The problem is that natural conditions are really complicated and scientists hate working under natural conditions because there are contaminating variables leading to error.”

Gallant approached this obstacle with a presentation on his current research, in which his lab team mapped semantics to specific regions of the brain to study how it represents different meanings of words. He and his team collected data using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Gallant stated that “we spent a long time developing a machine learning algorithm that basically learns the relationship between the functional areas in the individual brains and the anatomy in the individual brains.”

Through his research, he and his team at UC Berkeley’s Gallant Lab hope to extend their knowledge on the way that the mammalian brain receives and processes external information.

Peters said in a statement to the Highlander that the fMRI techniques have potential implications in the area of exposure therapy. “If you have a phobia of spiders, the best way to treat that fear is by asking you to look at spiders, approach spiders, or even hold spiders. But what if I could make you ‘look at’ those spiders unconsciously by making your brain unconsciously represent ‘spider patterns’? Maybe I could treat your phobia more effectively and it wouldn’t be so unpleasant for you. A real-time neurofeedback approach using neuroimaging (fMRI) might be able to do this.”

In a talking session held after Gallant’s presentation, Luis Colon-Perez, assistant researcher at the UC Irvine Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, revealed his study concerning changes in neural connectivity in the brain due to aging by comparing results in young and old rats. He also said, “as healthcare in United States increases, we are having a lot of older people that we did not have before and there are many social issues; societal issues like dementia and cognitive decline due to normal aging. In this collaboration, we wanted to study how normal aging is affecting brain activity.”

Lastly masters and Ph.D. students presented research in cognitive neuroscience at a poster session. Interacting with students and faculty from different scientific disciplines allowed for a steady exchange of new ideas and knowledge.

Tamara Tang, a third-year bioengineering major, assisted Peters in reaching out to researchers from different universities interested in presenting at the symposium. Tang said in a statement to the Highlander, “It would be wonderful if we could get a different line-up of speakers from a broader range of universities to provide their own input and latest research on neurocomputational imaging, as well as more submissions from grad students and undergraduates who would want to present their research.”

The CNNS provided an opportunity for students and faculty to learn about the nature of neuroengineering. Peters provides advice to those interested in keeping up with the trends in research, saying, “Follow professors who run exciting labs on Twitter. A lot of interesting discoveries are also posted on bioRxiv before they are published in peer-reviewed journals, so that’s also a way to keep up with the cutting edge of these fields.They’re all very exciting, and every technique is constantly being refined and improved.”