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2019-2020 Research Germinator Awards Announced!

–Researchers will use novel approaches to study the brain–

Four interdisciplinary research teams will conduct innovative neuroscience research with support from 2019 Research Germinator Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS).  The teams are focused on: 

  • Reducing post-operative cognitive decline for people with dementia
  • Understanding biofeedback at the neural level, through advanced imaging and computational analysis
  • Exploring the cognitive and neural mechanisms that update knowledge and beliefs
  • Developing more accurate and cost-effective technology to guide Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, a treatment method used with a wide range of brain disorders

“I am excited to see the breadth of topics and technologies that are represented in 2019 Germinator applications,” said DIBS Director Geraldine Dawson. “We also appreciated the wide representation across Duke University.” The 14 researchers on this year’s Germinator teams represent seven departments from three schools: Arts & Sciences, Medicine, and Pratt School of Engineering. 

This is the second year for DIBS Research Germinator Awards, which are designed to support requests for training, pilot data, non-faculty salary, and/or equipment that would jump start new research and, if successful, lead to external funding. Graduate students, postdoctoral associates, and faculty are eligible to submit proposals for up to $25,000. Lead investigators of the 2019 awards represent the full range of eligibility, including a postdoctoral fellow, two graduate students, and faculty members.   

Please see following chart for more information about the 2019 Germinator Award projects. The call for Letters of Intent for the 2020 Germinator Awards will go out this spring. More information may be found on the DIBS website.

2019 Germinator Award Recipients & Project Synopses

2019 Germinator Award InvestigatorsGerminator Award Project Synopses

Ravikanth Velagapudi, PhD, Anesthesiology, School of Medicine; and William Huffman, PhD, and David Bradway, PhD, both of Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering

Targeting Autophagy with Non-Invasive Vagal Nerve Stimulation to Treat Delirium Superimposed on Dementia

People living with dementia often need common surgical interventions such as knee replacement or hip-fracture repair. These patients are at risk for experiencing further cognitive decline after surgery. This research project will address this serious public health concern by providing fundamental knowledge to help reduce the burden of neurologic complications after common surgical procedures and improve the quality of life for these high-risk patients. The aims will implement a new non-invasive approach (stimulation of the vagus nerve) to regulate critical cellular processes involved in many neurological disorders, yet unexplored in the context of perioperative surgical recovery. 

Rachael Wright, Psychology & Neuroscience (P&N), Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and DIBS Cognitive Neuroscience Admitting Program (CNAP); Alison Adcock, MD, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; Kevin LaBar, PhD, P&N, and John Pearson, PhD, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, School of Medicine.

The Spatiotemporal Dynamics of Self-Regulation Learning in Real-time fMRI Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback is a promising method for examining the relationship between brain function and behavior. In neurofeedback, individuals are shown a graphical representation of a specific brain signal and learn to control that brain signal through practice. Scientists can then measure whether regulation of the targeted brain signal impacts thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Clinicians have also applied neurofeedback to help remedy symptoms of psychiatric or neurological disorders, yet scientists still lack an understanding of the neural mechanisms by which the process occurs. To answer this important question, it is critical to investigate how different regions throughout the brain interact during training to help individuals learn to control a specific brain signal. In this project, we develop a new approach to understand how brain states change during neurofeedback learning using advanced brain imaging technology and computational analysis tools. Ultimately, this project will improve our understanding of how neurofeedback works and promote advances in its design and application. 

Alyssa Sinclair, CNAP, DIBS, and Arts & Sciences; Alison Adcock, MD, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; and Gregory Samanez-Larkin, PhD and Elizabeth Marsh, PhD, both Psychology & Neuroscience in Arts & Sciences

Learning From Error: Cognitive, Motivational, and Neural Mechanisms

Learning from error is a fundamental part of real-world cognition. Students must learn from mistakes to gain knowledge. We all draw on past experience to predict the future, but our predictions are not always accurate. In such situations, we must dynamically update our knowledge and strategies.  It is clear that learning from error is important for success, but humans can be resistant to change. When new information challenges our beliefs, we often find it difficult to reconcile with our existing knowledge. What are the conditions that make us receptive to feedback, allowing us to learn from error? This group will investigate ways to encourage and support learning from error. They will consider the motivational and emotional factors that shape how we respond to feedback, predicting that learning about how memories integrate with experience will make participants more receptive to feedback. They aim to uncover the cognitive and neural mechanisms of knowledge and belief updating, bearing implications for both educational practices and the pervasive spread of misinformation in the media.

Angel V. Peterchev, PhD, Psychiatry  & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; Guillermo Sapiro, PhD, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering; Dennis A. Turner, MD, Neurosurgery, School of Medicine; Stefan M. Goetz, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine

Accurate, Affordable, and Easy-to-Use Navigation for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) uses magnetic fields sent from a “wand” placed on the head to safely improve brain function without drugs or surgery. TMS is approved for treatment of brain disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and migraine. It also holds promise for studying and treating other psychiatric and neurological illnesses. TMS interventions rely on precise targeting of areas of the brain that may not be functioning well. However, existing TMS devices have limited utility because they require the user to wear expensive and uncomfortable equipment, in order to accurately target the proper brain regions.   This group will develop a cheaper, simpler, and more comfortable tool to position the stimulator over the correct brain target. Drawing on recent developments in computer vision and smart cameras, the group will develop technology could enable better brain research and clinical treatments.