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Pearson Awarded BRAIN Grant to Improve Open-Access Neuroscience Software

The funds will be used to further improve a platform designed for neuroscientists, which seamlessly plugs-in to existing experimental pipelines and makes experiments more efficient and dynamic

John Pearson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in neurobiology and member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, has been awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to refine and expand his lab’s software improv, which provides on-the-fly data analysis, experimental manipulations, and more for neuroscience researchers. The $641K, three-year grant will help Pearson and his team team expand improv to handle new types of data, fit new models, and enable new experiments that test more hypotheses in limited experimental time.

John Pearson
John Pearson, Ph.D.

“For the last decade, we’ve been drastically increasing the size of data in neuroscience,” Pearson said, “But we haven’t been increasing statistical power. The goal of improv is to make more efficient experiments a reality.”

The grant comes by way of the NIH Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which was announced by former President Barack Obama in 2013, and continues to support work to chart out the human brain in finer detail and expand the toolsets necessary to do so, such as with Pearson’s software.

Pearson’s project, “Real-time mapping and adaptive testing for neural population hypotheses”, aims to improve the software, called improv, his group has developed, which enables any neuroscientist to get more out of their data and experiments. Aptly named, improv is a platform interface for experiments that is interactive (analyze data and see it graphed in real-time as it comes in) and adaptive (change the experiment as it’s running in an automated way), Pearson explained.

Led by Duke postdoctoral scholar Anne Draelos, Ph.D., improv is a modular software platform that can track real-time animal behavior or brain activity – be it voxels or volts – and do any number or things based on what it “observes”: it can change-up the stimulus (e.g. play a different tone to see how a mouse reacts), manipulate brain cells (e.g., flicker lasers to activate or silence light-sensitive neurons), or spit-out up-to-date graphs to give scientists an immediate sense of their results from an experiment.

The new grant will enable Pearson and his lab to do three main things:

  1. Software development: make improv easier to install and write a thorough guide on how to use it,
  2. New algorithms: expand the types of brain data that improv can work with, and
  3. Better choices: optimize the timing and type of experimental manipulations based on the brain and behavior data being collected.

Pearson’s work was initially supported by an Incubator Award from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) to create the software, which he and his collaborator, Duke neurobiology assistant professor Eva Naumann, Ph.D., were awarded back in 2018. From that, Pearson and Naumann collected enough preliminary data to help them apply for and jointly gain a different BRAIN grant in 2020, permitting them to further collect more key data and refine their software. As with Pearson, Naumann was also awarded new NIH funding this fall that relied on the team’s initial efforts.

The improv team operate on what Pearson refers to as the UNIX philosophy, whereby they strive to make their software modular and easy to plug-in to existing protocols people have for data analysis.

“Our goal is that we do a few things well, and we play nicely with everyone,” Pearson said.