A team of researchers at Georgia State University has been awarded a prestigious five-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) program, which supports the research capabilities of minority-serving institutions through the establishment of centers that effectively integrate education and research.
Using the grant, Georgia State will establish the Center for Dynamic Multiscale and Multimodal Brain Mapping Over the Lifespan (D-MAP), which will focus on brain development, structure and connectivity from childhood onward. Nationwide, D-MAP is one of only five new CREST centers funded in 2021.
“This significant investment from the National Science Foundation is recognition of our strength in brain research as well as our ability to train a diverse new generation of scientists,” said Vince Calhoun, Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and the project’s principal investigator.
The multidisciplinary center will embark on three research projects to study links between the brain’s development in different stages of life.
In the first project, researchers will develop new methods to improve understanding of the brain’s structure and functional connectivity patterns and how they change over time during learning and across the lifespan. The researchers then plan to apply these methods to study how the brain changes and what areas of the brain are critically engaged in reading. They will also study how transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) — a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate the brain — can modulate the brain’s reading network.
“We’re very interested in using this type knowledge to one day help people, especially those with learning disabilities, learn to read better,” said Robin Morris, Regents’ Professor of Psychology and a co-principal investigator on the grant. “TMS has been used to successfully treat severe depression, but we’re looking at whether it can also be effective at improving learning outcomes.”
The second project is focused on developing novel techniques to fuse different kinds of imaging data, such as information about the brain’s structure and its connectivity, and how various measures change over the lifespan. The researchers will leverage deep learning to analyze this data and identify brain patterns related to cognition and mood.
In the third project, the team will analyze large existing neuroimaging datasets — which include participants ranging from kindergarteners to people in their 80s — to develop “predictive fingerprints” of the developing and aging brain. They will then use their findings to predict aspects of linguistic processing, such as working memory or processing speed, using imaging data.
The center will also provide hands-on research experiences for students, particularly those who are historically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
“Welcoming historically underrepresented groups into the research endeavor is part of the mission of CREST, and it also aligns with the university’s goal to provide high quality education for people of all backgrounds and to promote their progress into advanced degrees and careers,” said Kyle Frantz, professor of neuroscience and director of the Center for the Advancement of Students and Alumni, who will lead the center’s education initiatives.
The center will engage K-12 students through short courses and research internships and provide meaningful research opportunities for undergraduate students at Georgia State as well as Morehouse College and Spelman College. To encourage the participation of students from all backgrounds, the university plans to integrate research into credit-bearing courses that count towards their degrees. The grant will also fund 12 graduate research assistantships.
“CREST will expand our ability to recruit and train undergraduate students as fully-functioning members of research teams,” said Calhoun, who also leads the Center for Translational Research in Neuroimaging and Data Science, which is supported by Georgia State, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University. “They’ll be gaining the skills they need to join the STEM workforce and helping contribute to the generation of new knowledge and discoveries.”
D-MAP includes faculty spanning 10 departments and four schools and colleges at Georgia State. The leadership team also includes Sergey Plis, associate professor of computer science, Jessica Turner, professor of neuroscience and psychology, and Vonetta Dotson, associate professor of gerontology and psychology.