Montana State University

MSU neuroscientists among team to win $6 million grant to study the brain circuits that help us focus and pay attention

November 9, 2016 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News

Professor Charles Gray, Associate Professor James Mazer and Assistant Professor Behrad Noudoost, all in the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience in the College of Letters and Science, are collaborating on a Dartmouth College-led project that aims to unravel how the brain helps us pay attention. The project was funded by a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-2 program.

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BOZEMAN – Three Montana State University researchers are among a team of 14 neuroscientists from across the nation seeking to develop a greater understanding of how the brain helps us pay attention to the right things when we execute complex behaviors with the help of a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

“This grant is intended to advance our understanding of the brain circuits and algorithms that ensure we can pay attention to the ‘right’ things during normal behavior,” said MSU Associate Professor James Mazer, who joined MSU’s faculty from Yale University in September. “With our daily lives getting ever more complicated and distractions like computers, phones and other gadgets constantly vying for our attention, understanding how these brain circuits function is becoming more and more important.”

Mazer, Professor Charles Gray, and Assistant Professor Behrad Noudoost, all in MSU’s Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience in the College of Letters and Science, are collaborating on a project that aims to unravel how the brain helps us pay attention. Peter Tse, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College, is leading the study, which also includes researchers from the University of Nevada at Reno and Brown University in Rhode Island.

Gray, who is a co-principal investigator of the project, said the research is important because people perform tasks every day that require attention, memory and eye movement, whether it’s driving a car, performing brain surgery or making dinner. This focused attention – or lack of it – impacts society in many ways, including through worker productivity, driver safety and national security.

“Everything we do every day of our lives involves attention and short-term memory,” Gray said. “It’s the basis of all cognition.”

Even something as simple as picking up a phone on top of a desk “involves big, complicated circuits in our brain,” he said.

“If you’re looking at an object and you want to grab it, there are about a million things going on,” he said. “You have to find it; you have to have the motivation to pick it up; you have to make a movement to pick it up. If you were to stop paying attention to your plan, you wouldn’t be able to see it through.

“It’s a large circuit,” Gray said. “All processes have to work together to get it done.”

Understanding how these fundamental processes work is important for finding ways to treat cognitive and psychiatric brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and the memory loss experienced by many patients following traumatic brain injury or surgical removal of a brain tumor, he added.

MSU researchers, in particular, will focus on the specific relationships between attention and memory, attention and eye movement, and the pharmacology of visual attention.

This complex relationship between attention, memory and eye movement is disrupted in several common clinical conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, commonly known as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and even schizophrenia. Mazer said this NSF-funded basic research will provide new insights that will help drive future research into therapies and other treatments for these clinical conditions.

“The highly collaborative, interdisciplinary research the EPSCoR grant will facilitate is where the real progress in neuroscience is being made today,” he said. “This grant will facilitate extensive collaboration between researchers with backgrounds ranging from computational biology to clinical neurology, working at different levels, from single neurons to whole-brain networks, in an effort to solve a single, fundamental problem.”

MSU Vice President for Research Renee Reijo Pera said the grant will serve as an impetus to further understanding and research of visual attention.

“This grant is important to MSU as we seek to impact mental health and neuroscience research from the basic science to applications,” she said.

Other goals listed in the project abstract are to develop lasting collaborations between laboratories, both within MSU and between member institutions, and to 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 students with low socio-economic status.

Additionally, the grant will provide funding for three female junior faculty participants to lead a yearly conference for female and under-represented minority graduate students, post-docs and junior faculty to foster mentoring and career development. The project will also fund science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, outreach activities targeting middle and high schools, including the development of a massive open online course targeting K-12 science teachers.

The $6 million grant was one of 11 grants totaling $55 million recently awarded through the NSF's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) Research Infrastructure Improvement Track-2 program, which supports collaborations across institutions in two or more EPSCoR jurisdictions. These four-year awards support 27 institutions in 18 eligible jurisdictions.

All awarded projects aim to increase national research capacity to address either fundamental questions about the brain or to develop new innovations at the intersection of food, energy and water systems, according to an NSF EPSCoR press release.

 “These awards represent a tremendous value for the scientific community, as they foster research into some of the most pressing issues facing U.S. society while simultaneously supporting collaborative research programs and workforce development,” said Denise Barnes, head of NSF EPSCoR. “Whether by expanding our knowledge of the brain or by improving how our water, food and energy systems work efficiently together, these projects hold the promise of transforming our daily lives.”

Charles Gray, cmgray@cns.montana.edu or (406) 994-7338; James Mazer, james.mazer@montana.edu or (406) 994-5947; Behrad Noudoost, bnoudoost@montana.edu or (406) 994-6494.