Unravelling the Brain’s Mysteries

The NYU-ECNU Institute for Brain and Cognitive Science at NYU Shanghai is a new research collaboration with an innovative approach. As China ramps up its brain research, the institute is poised to have a global impact in the race toward understanding the brain, writes Susan Salter-Reynolds.

Dr Xiao-Jing Wang, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and co-director of the Institute came to NYU Shanghai from Yale. “Even at places like Yale,” he says, “it’s not always easy to fully realize cross-disciplinary research and education. We had a unique opportunity to build a research university from a ‘whole cloth’ at NYU Shanghai, and in just four short years we have created ten institutes across traditional departmental boundaries.”

Among these, the Institute for Brain and Cognitive Science was founded to connect NYU’s exceptional prominence in neuroscience and East China Normal University’s (ECNU) long tradition in Cognitive Psychology and Brain Research. Together, they aim to advance neuroscientific understanding of cognition, which includes decision-making, learning and memory, human language, as well as artificial intelligence.

Neuroscience is growing each day as new technological tools enable researchers to gather big data of all kinds. “Understanding the complex brain circuit across scales requires collaboration,” says Dr. Wang. “With our combined expertise in experimental and computational neuroscience, we aspire to make special contributions to the field.”


The Global Imperative

The rise in poorly understood brain disorders around the world has been compared to global warming—a global problem that will require the kind of transnational collaboration Dr. Wang often alludes to. “It takes the world to understand the brain,” he quotes a recent article in the journal Science.

International players include President Obama’s $300 million White House Brain Initiative, launched in 2013, which supports “the development and application of innovative technologies that can create a dynamic understanding of brain function” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/BRAIN).

Also in 2013, Europe launched the $1.6 billion Human Brain Project. Japan’s Brain Mapping by Integrated Neurotechnologies for Disease Studies (Brain/MINDS) program started in 2014, and is focused on mapping the brain of a small new world monkey, the common marmoset.


One Body, Two Wings

The China Brain Project is expected to begin in 2017. “‘One body, two wings,’ describes the plan,” says Dr. Wang. The main “body” will be basic research on the neural basis of cognitive functions. The “two wings” are applications of fundamental advances to diagnoses and therapies for major brain disorders and brain-inspired intelligence technologies (A.I.).

Researchers and institutes around the world have taken on different unknowns--pieces of the puzzle each with different priorities. For a long time, explains Dr. Wang, “neuroscientists were mostly interested in sensation and movement. Recently, the focus has shifted to cognitive processes, between our senses and motor acts.  The research in cognition involves perhaps the most mysterious parts of the human brain, and requires experimentation on nonhuman primates.” Indeed, several institutions in China, including the Institute of Neuroscience of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai, have established primate facilities and are developing genetic manipulation methods in macaque monkeys.


Why Math to Understand the Brain?

Dr. Wang is a computational neuroscientist. “I develop theory and build computational models of neural circuits to help make sense of data, look for general principles, and come up with predictions,” he explains. Theorists like Wang work closely with experimentalists to design experiments that bridge neurobiology and psychology. This approach, by its very nature, is collaborative and cutting-edge. Computational neuroscience is new in China, and a center like, the NYU-ECNU Institute for Brain and Cognitive Science at NYU Shanghai focused on the neural basis of cognitive functions, is rather rare.

“This distinguishes us from other institutes in China.”

Dr. Wang walks a listener through sixty years of neuroscience in less than 10 minutes: how neurons communicate using electrical signals, and how these signals convert into chemical transmission at the site of neural connections called synapses. These signals and interactions can be described by mathematical equations. With newly gained knowledge about the “brain’s wiring diagram (the brain connectome),” it is possible to build models to describe neural circuits. “The wiring between the neurons in each of our brains,” says Dr. Wang, “would stretch about half of the distance between the earth and the moon!” “These days,” Dr. Wang laughs, “everything is about the connectivity and dynamics of networks!”

“At NYU Shanghai, we are building a computational platform for computer simulation of large-scale brain circuits that everyone can use. But it is more than a platform,” he says. “It allows researchers to come up with ideas they can test, with the ultimate goal of generating general principles that have predictive power in neuroscience, just like Newtonian laws of Physics. Moreover, we can use discovered mathematical algorithms to develop artificial intelligence. This is why computational neuroscience serves as a critical bridge between neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.).”

Wang’s enthusiasm is echoed by Jeffrey Erlich, an Assistant Professor of Neural and Cognitive Sciences at NYU Shanghai. He came from Princeton and McGill Universities. “This was a real opportunity,” he says. At NYU Shanghai I get all the benefits of the fantastic neuroscience program at NYU, and I can be a big fish in this new pond in Shanghai!”

The faculty in neuroscience at NYU Shanghai are truly cross-disciplinary, with training in physics, engineering, mathematics, and computational science. Erlich says: “The people who work here are describing this unfolding story mathematically. They are laying the foundation for a new language, a common language.” Coming from an experimentalist, the words are evidence of a sea change in the biology of the mind.

Erlich works on the brain mechanisms of decision-making, using a combination of neurophysiological recording from behaving subjects and computational modeling.

Erlich has also studied how chronic stress affects cognitive decisions, particularly financial decisions. “Dialogue around poverty is so politicized. If we can shift the focus to biological processes and neural mechanisms that affect poverty we might be able to depoliticize the debate.”


Is It A Global Race?

Dr. Wang laughs. “If it is a race, then what is the finish line? The Human Genome Project was a race with a definite end goal. In neuroscience there are many goals. We need to understand the brain across many levels— molecular, cellular, microcircuits, and systems. Some neuroscientists may focus on mapping the brain connectivity; others on the mechanisms of drugs; others on human language, or intelligence, or social communication. There is a plethora of challenges in neuroscience.”


The Next Generation

“The undergraduate major in neuroscience did not exist in China until NYU Shanghai,” says Dr. Wang. “So we are pioneers in training young talents in this quintessential field of the twenty-first century. Our students move through required courses in molecular and cellular neuroscience, cognitive systems neuroscience, before taking more specialized courses ranging from A.I., Neuroeconomics, and The Brain Science of Free Will.”

“Our students are amazing,” says Dr. Erlich. “They are courageous and intellectually curious.”

Erlich notices great variety among the Chinese students—some are very proactive, others are quite shy, but all are super smart.

Li Xiangci (李向磁) came to Dr. Wang in his freshman year. His parents wanted him to study business or computational science, but his passion was learning about the brain. Advised and encouraged by Dr. Wang, he chose to double major in neuroscience and computer science. In addition to studying courses, he carried out a research project supervised by a neuroscientist (Dr. Erlich) and a computer scientist (Dr. Zhang Zheng). He has already succeeded in training a neural network model to simulate behavior in a cognitive task, and is looking forward to his graduation as part of our very first class in the spring of 2017.

“China (and Shanghai city in particular),” Dr. Wang emphasized, “is eager to invest in neuroscience and A.I., because of their revolutionary potential for innovation and economic development. At NYU Shanghai, we don’t limit ourselves to disseminating knowledge. We want to create knowledge— to make scientific discoveries—and improve people’s lives.”


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