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DIBS Awards 2019-2020 Research Incubator Grants

Interdisciplinary program generates 7-1 return on investment

Six interdisciplinary teams have received 2019 Research Incubator Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). The $100,000 awards are designed to promote high-risk/high-return neuroscience research that is collaborative, crosses academic boundaries, and is likely to draw external funding. The projects also help train the next generation of scientists by involving graduate students and postdoctoral associates.

“We were really pleased with the breadth and depth of the Research Incubator proposals we received this year,” said DIBS Associate Director Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, who administers the program. “This year’s awardees are addressing transformational issues such as better autism screening, enhanced artificial speech, and new ways to understand and treat movement and memory disorders.” Awardees represent three schools: Medicine, Pratt School of Engineering and Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and a dozen different departments within those schools, she noted. 

Five teams are supported through DIBS; a sixth was funded through the generosity of the DIBS External Advisory Board. Geraldine Dawson, who directs the Institute, stressed the positive return on investment of the Incubator Award program. “Between 2013 and 2018, Incubator projects have generated a seven-to-one return on investment,” she noted. That is, for every $1 it costs to fund the awards, $7 are returned to the university through federal grants and other external funding. Teams must be composed of faculty leaders who represent at least two different departments at Duke. Projects that include investigators from multiple schools within the University (e.g., School of Medicine, Arts & Sciences, Pratt School of Engineering, etc.) are encouraged. Criteria for awards included innovation, interdisciplinarity, significance to the brain sciences, quality of the approach, feasibility, and potential to lead to external funding.

Following is a list of this year’s team members and their projects:

2019 Research Incubator Teams & Projects

Team MembersTitle & Lay Summary of Research Project

PI: Greg Cogan, PhD, Neurosurgery, School of Medicine; Saurabh Sinha, MD, PhD, Neurology, Derek Southwell, PhD, Neurosurgery, John Pearson, PhD, Biostatistics  & Bioinformatics, all of the School of Medicine; and Jonathan Viventi, PhD, Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering

Decoding of Speech for Neural Prostheses Using High-density Electrocorticography and Machine Learning

Language allows us to express our thoughts and understand the thoughts of others. People who lack this ability feel isolated, lonely, and frustrated. Patients who suffer from debilitating neuromuscular disorders have difficulty communicating through language. Current technologies that provide some ability to communicate are slow and cumbersome. This group will explore a promising new technology that constructs speech directly from the brain. The team will develop pattern analysis techniques to extract speech and language information directly from brain signals, while also measuring the brain signals at much higher resolution than previously done. The team hopes to use this information to create better-quality speech sounds for patients with neuromuscular disorders, helping them speak more clearly, allowing them to communicate more effectively.

PI: Jenna McHenry, PhD, Psychology & Neuroscience, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Diego Bohórquez, PhD, Medicine/Gastroenterology, School of Medicine

Functional Interrogation of Reproductive Peripheral-brain Circuits for Controlling Social and Affective States

Many human neuropsychiatric disorders have differing prevalence in males versus females. For example, autism spectrum disorders are four times more common in males, whereas mood disorders are twice as common in females. Sex biases are clues to the underlying neurobiological mechanisms, yet the neural circuits involved remain undefined.  Sexual differentiation of the brain and reproductive system occurs early in life, but it is unknown how sensory inputs in adulthood traverse the reproductive-brain-axis to modulate behavior and moods. Traditionally, it was thought that communication between these systems occurred only through hormones that travel through the blood. However, the Bohórquez Lab recently discovered that information can travel directly from the gut to the brain. The reproductive system likely operates through similar mechanisms, but those mechanisms remain undefined. The goal of this study is to look for such direct links between the reproductive system and the brain. The McHenry Lab has expertise using novel circuit techniques to study how reproductive hormonal systems coordinate neural activity for social and emotional behaviors. These researchers will combine their expertise to map out the circuits that link the brain and reproductive organs.

PI: Marc Sommer, PhD, Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering; Elika Bergelson, PhD, Psychology & Neuroscience, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; John Pearson, PhD, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, School of Medicine

Computational Links between Visual and Linguistic Perception

The brain converts sensory input into “percepts” that are meaningful for thought and action. For example, when we look at a glass of orange juice on a table, our eyes receive a disjointed collection of contrast levels and light wavelengths, but our brain perceives this information as a glass that can be picked up. How does the brain do this? Theories of perception either assume that the brain constructs a model of the world that merges past experiences with current evidence, or that it relies on simple, flexible systems to classify patterns. This research group has recently shown that for visual perception, humans switch between the two strategies. This switch in strategies might be special to vision or general to all perception. The group will therefore perform similar experiments in the domain of language. Finding computational commonalities between vision and language will help reveal general principles of brain function and provide insight into perceptual disorders.

PI: Elena Tenenbaum, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; also from the School of Medicine: Geraldine DawsonPhD, and Kathryn Gustafson, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and Kimberley Fisher, PhD, and William Malcolm, MD, Pediatrics/Neonatology

Using Computer Vision to Screen for ASD in Toddlers and Infants Born Premature

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder with symptoms emerging in infancy. Despite this early onset, many children with ASD are not diagnosed until they approach school age. This delay is greater among children of color and those living in under-resourced communities.Formal diagnosis of autism is time-consuming and requires a specially trained provider, which limits availability. Furthermore, current methods are not designed for use with infants.  To improve on current screening methods, researchers at Duke designed SenseToKnow, a tablet-based application (app) that was designed to assess for risk of ASD and can be administered during a standard doctor’s office visit, making it widely accessible. This group will test the app with toddlers who were born premature to determine whether it can distinguish risk for ASD from risk for other developmental disorders.  The group will also test the app with infants born premature to determine whether it can be used effectively in infancy. If we can identify children at risk for ASD early and accurately, we can improve access to diagnostic assessments and intervention and thereby improve outcomes.

PI: Huanghe Yang, PhD, Biochemistry & Neurobiology, School of Medicine; Mohamad Mikati, MD, PediatricsSchool of Medicine

Targeting BK Calcium-activated Potassium Channel to Treat Epilepsy & Dyskinesia

Epilepsy and dyskinesia are two types of neurological disorders that feature seizures and involuntary movements. They affect millions of people, who often face higher frequency of depression and other mood disorders, challenges in education and social life, and higher risk of early death. About one-third of epilepsy patients live with uncontrollable seizures due to lack of effective medication. It is thus urgent to better understand the pathophysiology of these conditions, so that we can develop new therapeutics. Dr. Yang is an expert in the physiology of “BK”-type ion channels. Dr. Mikati is a pediatrician who has identified patients with epilepsy and dyskinesia who have mutations in these types of ion channels. Together, they will work to understand how these mutations cause the neurological symptoms and how to design new precision therapeutics, using a mouse model with the human mutation in the channel.

PI: Junjie Yao, PhD, Biomedical Engineering, Pratt, School of Engineering; Wei Yang, PhD, Anesthesiology, School of Medicine

Head-mounted Photoacoustic Imaging of Deep-brain Neural Activities in Freely-Behaving Animals

The brain is an incredibly powerful information-processing center, responding to millions of inputs each day. The best way to learn about brain activity is, of course, to have the brain be alert and active. Yet many of our evaluation techniques require subjects to lie still, often sedated, during the scans. This group will therefore work to develop tools to collect data from awake, behaving animals using photoacoustic imaging (PAM). PAM is based on the photoacoustic effect: When laser (light) pulses are sent into brain of freely moving animals, they generate soundwaves that can be transformed into images that represent how neurons are firing at the time. These methods can be used in many applications, including during cognitive tasks or when stroke happens. This new methodology could become a powerful tool to help scientists unlock the brain’s inner workings.