FUNDED RESEARCH & RELATED ACTIVITIES
IBACS Seed grant funds are intended for collaborative research projects across the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Also considered are: applications for equipment, research workshops, conferences, meetings, visits /visitors that contribute to collaborative activities and other activities compatible with the mission of the Institute. For more information on our Seed Grant program click here.
UConn Health Center, Neuroscience
Lead PI: David Martinelli
Title of Project: Discovery of a novel neural mechanism to protect the sensory cells of the cochlea from death caused by intense noise
Normal hearing requires sensory cells in the cochlea, called outer hair cells. They are particularly susceptible to death as a result of intense noise exposure. They cannot regenerate, and their death results in permanent hearing loss. This proposal aims to identify a novel nervous system mechanism that protects outer hair cells from intense sound. This could lead to future experiments that enhance this mechanism to protect the hearing of those susceptible to hearing loss.
Lead PI: Roeland Hancock
Title of Project: Genetic and Environmental Bases of Language Processing
The overall goal of this research is to determine how the relationship between language and reading-related skills and neurobiology (i.e. brain structure and function) is differentially mediated by genetic and environmental factors in different regions of the brain. We collect data in a novel genetically informed study design from families who have had children through assisted reproductive technology to address this question.
Lead PI: Ed Large, with Co-PI Karl Lerud
Title of Project: Tracking down pitch perception in the human brain
We are investigating the neural correlates of pitch perception. When a complex sound is perceived, two questions can be asked: What is a precise characterization of the brain's response to it, and what determines the perceived pitch? The literature is currently ambiguous regarding whether the perception can be deduced from a measured neural response. We are combining two imaging modalities, structural MRI and EEG, to address these questions. We will record the brain's evoked EEG response to auditory stimuli, called the frequency following response (FFR), using a high-density electrode cap to boost the signal to noise ratio of the FFR. Next, using each individual participant's MRI scan, along with modern signal processing algorithms, we will localize the response to its neural sources. With this newly-detailed picture of the FFR, we will be able to describe the relationship between the brain's auditory signal processing and previously-collected pitch perception data more accurately than has previously been possible.
Lead PI: Tehran Davis
Title of Project: Collective behavior in dissipative systems: flocking and fútbol
Our project is a multi-disciplinary effort to understand the origins of structure and behavior in multi-agent collectives. Collective behavior and large-scale group dynamics have become especially hot topics of research in the physical, biological, and cognitive sciences. Recent efforts suggest a physical principle of energy dissipation may be fundamental in driving to coordination of both living and non-living collectives. Here, we work to advance this idea by developing models of collective motion that identify and highlight similarities between the emergent coordination of collections of chemical particles and the emergent coordination of teams of professional soccer players.
UConn Health Center, Neuroscience
Lead PI: Ephraim Trakhtenberg
Title of Project: The molecular mechanisms of nerve regeneration after injury to the central nervous system.
Dr. Trakhtenberg (lead PI) and Dr. Crocker (co-PI) were awarded a seed grant that will fund an exploratory research project aimed at testing a novel hypothesis regarding why axonal connections, through which neurons in the brain communicate with each other over long distances, do not regenerate after traumatic or stroke injury.
Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences
Lead PI: Bernard Grela
Title of Project: Banana = Monkey or Apple? How Children with Language Impairments Categorize Objects
When placing objects into categories, preschool children organize objects by functional associations (banana with monkey). At around 6 years of age, this changes to organization by similarity (banana with other kinds of fruit). This shift is thought to be influenced by advanced language abilities. Children with language impairments are delayed in language development, therefore, this study intends to determine if their organization of objects is different from their typically developing peers.
Lead PI: Marie Coppola
Title of Project: CEDAR (Community Engagement in Deafness and Autism Research)
Including Deaf individuals as partners in research has advanced our understanding of sign language and Deaf culture; however, tensions remain between the Deaf community and researchers. Similar issues arise in the domain of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Are ASD and Deafness medical conditions in need of medical solutions (e.g., a cochlear implant, behavioral therapy), or cultural identities? This IBaCS Seed Grant will support a workshop aimed at promoting dialogue among stakeholders and researchers.
Lead PI: Mason Yeh
Title of Project: Development of a 3D culture model of human cortical development
The goal of this project is to develop a three-dimensional cell culture system for growing cerebral organoids (sometimes referred to as “mini-brains”) from human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The human iPSC lines are derived from peripheral tissue or blood samples from individual subjects. Our long-term goal is to use this culture system to study molecular and cellular pathophysiology underlying autism and related neurodevelopmental disorders, with the hope of identifying novel targets for therapeutic intervention.
Lead PI: James Dixon
Title of Project: Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics of Learning in Dissipative Networks
Learning remains one of the core mysteries in cognitive science. Why do living systems learn? And how could learning be instantiated in such different ways across so many different types of creatures? We propose to investigate the hypothesis that learning is actually the result of thermodynamic law expressed across the complex (and varied) media of living things. We plan to develop physical, analog networks that self-organize their own connections (and perhaps even their own nodes). These systems exhibit very complex behavior, but also have tractable thermodynamics. Thus, we can evaluate and manipulate key thermodynamic variables as the system behaves and learns. The project has implications for grounding a theory of adaptive behavior in thermodynamic principles.
UConn Health Center, Pediatrics
Lead PI: Min Tang-Schomer
Title of Project: Grow and control a human neuronal circuit in a dish
Neuronal networks constantly adapt to changing inputs during learning and memory. Network dynamics is extremely challenging to study with human or animals. Our lab has developed a neuronal circuit of cultured neurons with external electric control. We will introduce to the bioengineered circuit human patient-derived neurons and computational network analysis. We aim to forge a functional human neuronal circuit as a testbed for the next generation of neuromodulation prostheses and brain disorder therapies.
Physiology & Neurobiology
Lead PI: Alexander Jackson
Title of Project: Defining hypothalamic cells and circuits that orchestrate behavior
The lateral hypothalamus (LHA) is a linchpin in the coordination of many aspects of behavior and cognitive function, including arousal, attention, stress and reward. Disruption of neural circuits in this region is associated with disorders of sleep, feeding and motivated behavior, which profoundly affect our well-being and mental health. We propose to use new and informative cellular and molecular techniques to dissect the cells and circuits in the LHA that help to shape these behaviors.
Lead PI: Inge-Marie Eigsti
Title of Project: Brain functions in individuals with an optimal outcome from autism spectrum disorder
In prior work, we showed that some individuals show clear Autism Spectrum Disorder prior to age 5, but later lose all symptoms; they seem to use unique brain networks to achieve this “optimal outcome” (OO).
We will study OO in two cohorts: individuals with an OO who are now young adults, allowing us to evaluate how they navigate the difficult transition into independence and young adulthood; and children who were diagnosed by us, who are now in their teens, allowing us to identify early childhood predictors of OO. An MRI study will investigate functional connectivity and integration of task-engaged networks.
Lead PI: Damir Dzhafarov
Title of Project: UConn Logic Group
The UConn Logic Group is an active interdisciplinary research hub with over forty faculty and graduate student members from mathematics, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and law. Logic is a subject that concerns language, computation, reasoning and problem-solving. As such, it is an important area of interest in many disciplines. This project aims to enhance the Groups' profile and activities, furthering UConn's reputation as a center for excellence in research and scholarship in logic and formal methods.
Lead PI: Dorit Bar-On
Title of Project: What's in a Word? A UConn Workshop
With over 50 participants, the workshop “What’s in a Word?” brought together linguists, psychologists, and philosophers of language from UConn, Yale, Harvard, MIT, Duke, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University for a two-day collaborative investigation of the status of words: the contrast between words and mere labels, word meanings and their relations to concepts, and words as potential points of entry into language (both in language acquisition and in trying to teach language to nonhuman animals).
Urology, UConn Health Center
Title of Project: Integrative Bladder Control: Determining the Mechanisms of Brain Control over Bladder Sensations
Urinary control problems are often due to abnormal sensations about bladder content rather than disorders of bladder pressure. Bladder wall tension determines the bladder’s sensitivity to volume. The brain controls this tension via the sympathetic nervous system, allowing integration of information about bladder content with other physiologic processes. Urinary disorders can be understood as adaptive failures, rather than bladder disease. In this project we will examine the mechanism by which bladder tensions are created and regulated by brain control signals.
Physiology & Neurobiology
Title of Project: Mapping of Stem Cell Fate in the Normal and Hydrocephalic Developing Brain
In fetal development stem cells generate an ependymal lining, which covers the ventricle surface of the brain and functions as a barrier and transport system for cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) exchange. Hydrocephalus, an abnormal buildup of CSF, results in expansion of the ventricles and places extraordinary demands on the stem cell population. In the proposed experiments, we will map stem cell activity in normal and hydrocephalic brain tissue with an aim to identify neurodevelopmental consequences.
Title of Project: How children discover grammar
Our project is developing and testing new ways to study how children identify the grammatical rules of their native language. For example, several new techniques are based on tracking the moment-by-moment direction of a child's eye-gaze while listening to sentences. A key question is the precise nature of native-speaker grammatical knowledge. This information will have applications in early childhood education and the treatment of language disorders.
Physiology & Neurobiology
Title of Project: How do NG2 glial cells modulate neuronal function in the mouse brain?
This research project will analyze animal behavior following an induced loss of a specific glial cell population in the brain, known as NG2 cells. The major goal of this effort is to determine whether these cells have a direct, functional effect on brain activity, or have a more indirect, supportive role. A better understanding of this important cell type will provide valuable insight into how brain activity is regulated.
Title of Project: Specific activation of dopamine neurons to increase exertion of effort in motivational tasks
Fatigue/loss of energy is a very common psychiatric symptom. Anergia and reduced exertion of effort are debilitating features of depression and other disorders. Common antidepressants (e.g. SSRIs like PROZAC) are relatively ineffective at treating motivational dysfunction, and can induce or exacerbate these symptoms. Recent evidence implicates the neurotransmitter dopamine in effort-related symptoms, and this project will use pharmacogenetic methods to specifically activate dopamine neurons, which is expected to improve exertion of effort in rat models.
Title of Project: A genomics, MRI and behavioral assessment of atypically strong reading abilities, or hyperlexia, in autism spectrum disorder
Some children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) also have unusually strong reading abilities, called hyperlexia. Our group will study the possibility that hyperlexia emerges because reading has co-opted the “reward” function that social interaction normally plays. Because the neural foundations of reading are very well understood, hyperlexia provides an exciting opportunity to study strong “circumscribed interests” in ASD, looking not just at behavior, but also brain activity and genetic correlates of hyperlexia.
Title of Project: Understanding the Neural Basis of Ambiguous Word Comprehension via Brain Stimulation
The interpretation of most words varies based on the context in which they are encountered (e.g., <river>/<money> BANK). We are using brain stimulation techniques to understand how different brain regions are responsible for representing the meanings of a word and how contextually inappropriate meanings can be suppressed.
Physiology & Neurobiology
Title of Project: A Technology for Imaging Neuron Type Specific Patterns Across Cerebral Cortex
Brain function arises from the distributed activity of many different neuron types, but our current ability to measure the contribution of an entire population of neurons of any particular type is highly limited. In this project we will capitalize on the expertise of three labs, two in Physiology and Neurobiology and one in Biomedical Engineering, to develop a new approach for measuring the activity of two major classes of neurons, excitatory, neurons and inhibitory neurons, across different brain areas.
Molecular & Cell Biology
Title of Project: Is there a link between Maternal Immunity, X Chromosome Gene Regulation and Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Studies in humans and animal models suggest that offspring born to mothers that have undergone activation of maternal immunity due to viral infection during pregnancy are at increased risk of developing Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). A key metabolic pathway, purine synthesis, has been implicated in this immunity-related risk. We are investigating whether a gene on the X chromosome, thought to be important in this pathway, may carry epigenetic mutations leading to the observed increased susceptibility of males to ASD.
Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences
Lead PI: Rachel Theodore
Title of Project: Speech sound processing in bilingual, infant, and impaired populations
The speech signal provides listeners with information about both who is speaking and what is being said. Research on typical adults suggests that efficient comprehension requires integrating these two sources of information. Our project uses behavioral and neuroimaging methods to examine how babies learn to integrate these two sources of information, how bilinguals integrate this information across their two languages,and whether children with language impairment show deficits in integrating talker and linguistic information.
Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences
Lead PI: Tammie Spaulding
Title of Project: Prosody as a window on Specific Language Impairment
Approximately 7% of school-age children meet diagnostic criteria for Specific Language Impairment (SLI): low language ability despite nonlinguistic abilities in the normal range. While there has been little work investigating the neural organization of language in SLI, some previous studies suggest atypical lateralization in SLI: language processing relies heavily on the left hemisphere in children with typical language development, but may be more bilateral in children with SLI. This project tests whether these differences replicate in a larger sample with better controls, and adds an examination of prosody (the melody and rhythm of speech), an aspect of language that typically relies most heavily on the right hemisphere. This project was initiated by a UConn undergraduate student, and brings together an interdisciplinary team from SLHS and Psychological Sciences. The results will form the basis for a grant application to the National Institutes of Health.
Title of Project: Using Network Science to Understand the Organization of Human Lexical Knowledge
Our project aims to shed new light on the organization of human lexical knowledge using graph theory. We will consider both static and dynamic representations of human phonological and semantic knowledge. By using cutting-edge graph theoretic techniques for characterizing the dynamics of functional networks, we will develop new methods for analyzing the behavior and structure of computational models of human word recognition.
Title of Project: Cognitive task development for mouse neurogenetic models
Research on genetically engineered mouse models is growing rapidly, with particular emphasis on phenotypes that can tie causal genetic mutations/variations to clinical conditions such as autism, depression, schizophrenia, and language disorders. To accomplish this, well-established and "mouse-friendly” tasks (Morris and other mazes, Open Field, novel object, rotarod, and various social paradigms) are often used. The application of engineered mouse models to the study of complex human cognition, however, calls for the development and validation of new tasks that can link to additional aspects of higher-order cognition such as categorization, object-constancy, structural logic, and other forms of rule-learning. A set of 4 new touch-screen operant testing stations recently acquired by the MBNF will be used to develop novel testing programs (via custom software) that can tap such cognitive measures in mice, and thus be used to study genetic modulation of cognition. Once validated, the tasks will seed future behavioral neurogenetic projects for the PIs, as well as others in the field.
Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences
Title of Project: Brain Correlates and Early Predictors to School Age Language in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
This project investigates the psychological and neurological determinants of language variation in school age and adolescent children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Over the past decade, Naigles and Fein have collected intensive early language data from children with ASD and typically-developing controls. In this follow-up project, now in collaboration with Skoe, the children will be visited again in their homes to obtain neural measurements in the form of auditory brainstem responses.
Title of Project: The role of distinct brain systems during language and event comprehension
Events typically entail change, but an under-studied topic in cognitive psychology concerns how we encode and track the changes that individual objects undergo as events unfold. On hearing “The chef will chop the onion”, we must keep track of multiple versions of the onion; before the chopping, and after. We are using simultaneous fMRI and EEG recording to explore the role of the brain’s memory systems and other structures during the comprehension of such events.
Lead PI: Letitia Naigles
Title of Project: UConn KIDS Community Activities & Outreach
UConn KIDS (Kids in Developmental Science) comprises a consortium of researchers who examine core aspects of typical and atypical child development, including cognition, language, and social relationships. Participating departments and programs include Cognitive Science, Educational Psychology, Human Development and Family Studies, Linguistics, Psychological Sciences, Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, and the Rudd Center. Funding from the Connecticut IBACS helps to support the activities of our Child Research Recruitment Coordinator and the infrastructure of our on-line participant database.