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Racing down the neural highway

This weekend, two Northeastern University researchers will take part in a highly selective international competition that seeks to unravel the mysteries of the brain’s neural networks, thereby laying groundwork for breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience.

Assistant professors Armen Stepanyants, of the physics department, and Deniz Erdogmus, of electrical and computer engineering, will lead separate teams in the DIADEM (Digital Reconstruction of Axonal and Dendritic Morphology) Challenge.

The competition—to be held from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 in the Washington, D.C., area—looks for innovative ways of creating a functional “atlas” of the brain, particularly via three-dimensional computer imaging.
Nerve cells have a tree-like structure, with axons and dendrites that branch off to form connections that serve specific brain functions.

And the brain has billions of these neurons, Stepanyants explains. Tracing only one of them by traditional manual means can take a researcher as much as two weeks. That’s why neuroscientists are so eager to use computer mapping tools to automate the reconstruction of neural networks.
Enter the DIADEM Challenge.

“Neuroscientists would like algorithms that automate a bulk of the work so they can extract information from the large image databases that they acquire,” says Erdogmus, who will participate in the competition with one of his Ph.D. students, Erhan Bas.

Stepanyants’s team will include College of Computer and Information Science graduate students Parth Chothani and Vivek Mehta.

Having 3D-image reconstruction algorithms would help neuroscientists understand how both healthy and unhealthy neural systems work, Erdogmus says. This could lead to a better understanding of how the brain stores memories and why people develop neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The DIADEM Challenge was organized by the Allen Institute for Brain Science; the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, at George Mason University. The two Northeastern teams are among the five finalists selected from the more than 100 teams that registered.

“This is a good sign of the quality of research being done here at Northeastern,” Erdogmus says.

Both Northeastern team leaders have expertise in brain-functionality research. Stepanyants is fascinated with computational neuroscience—particularly the principles of synaptic connectivity in the cerebral cortex. In 2008, he received a National Institutes of Health grant for automating neuron reconstruction from 3D microscopy image stacks, research directly related to the DIADEM Challenge.

Erdogmus’s research includes the development of a brain-computer interface that uses signals from a human’s visual cortex to control a robot’s movements. Applications derived from this research may someday guide military vehicles or assist human-cognitive or sensory-motor functions in disabled or neurologically impaired users.

For the final DIADEM competition, each team will work separately in environments that mimic the dynamics of real labs and will collaborate with neuroscientists, whose own data will test the teams’ algorithms.

Erdogmus says he expects participating in the challenge to lead to useful connections with other researchers in the field as well as to future research projects.

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