17:20 PM

Pitt-CMU Team Clinches $3M NSF Grant to Examine the Brain’s Internal States

A team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University were recently awarded a three-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Over the next five years, the award will support research and trainees investigating internal states in the brain, such as motivation, attention, and arousal. The investigators take a unique approach to this challenge, using brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) to provide “neurofeedback.”

The research will be jointly led by Pitt’s Aaron Batista and Carnegie Mellon’s Steve Chase, Matt Smith, and Byron Yu.

“What we have been finding over the past few years is that in areas of the motor cortex, where you expect signals to be related to movement, there are also signals related to internal states,” said Batista, professor of bioengineering at Pitt. “This sets the stage for us to study the use of brain-computer interfaces to not only influence motor control, but also one’s frame of mind.”

This sets the stage for us to study the use of brain-computer interfaces to not only influence motor control, but also one’s frame of mind.
Aaron Batista, Professor of Bioengineering, University of Pittsburgh

BCI technology provides direct communication between the brain and a machine. It is mainly being developed as a rehabilitative tool for motor control, but with this award, the research team will explore a novel approach of this pioneering technology.

“Over the years we have developed methods to identify some of the internal states in the brain, and with this grant, we can now target those signals directly by structuring the feedback that the subject receives,” Batista explained.

The team recently published an article showing that animals exhibit decreased performance at motor skills when the incentives are unusually high, which was one of their first forays into demonstrating how internal states of motivation influence performance. 

While much of their previous work focused on the motor and somatosensory cortex of the brain, in this project, they will also examine the prefrontal cortex. Matt Smith, associate professor of biomedical engineering at CMU, will leverage his expertise in the internal state of attention, which connects conditions like attention deficit disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. By combining experimental research with computational and theoretical approaches, headed by CMU’s Yu and Chase, rapid progress is expected on these important questions.

This project is in collaboration with the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition, a cross-university research and educational program between Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh that leverages each institution’s strengths to investigate the cognitive and neural mechanisms that give rise to biological intelligence and behavior.