Neuroscientists frequently say that neural activity ‘represents’ certain phenomena, PIK Professor Konrad Kording and postdoc Ben Baker led a study that took a philosophical approach to tease out what the term means.
One of neuroscience’s greatest challenges is to bridge the gaps between the external environment, the brain’s internal electrical activity, and the abstract workings of behavior and cognition. Many neuroscientists rely on the word “representation” to connect these phenomena: A burst of neural activity in the visual cortex may represent the face of a friend or neurons in the brain’s memory centers may represent a childhood memory.
But with the many complex relationships between mind, brain, and environment, it’s not always clear what neuroscientists mean when they say neural activity “represents” something. Lack of clarity around this concept can lead to miscommunication, flawed conclusions, and unnecessary disagreements.
To tackle this issue, an interdisciplinary paper takes a philosophical approach to delineating the many aspects of the word “representation” in neuroscience. The work, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, comes from the lab of Konrad Kording, a Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor and senior author on the study whose research lies at the intersection of neuroscience and machine learning.
In a recent study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, the team detailed what they found when they closely observed the nucleus of cells inside connective tissues deteriorating as a result of tendinosis, which is the chronic condition that results from a tendon repeatedly suffering small injuries that don’t heal correctly. Using the latest super-resolution imaging techniques, they found that the tendon cells involved in maintaining the tissue’s structure in a diseased microenvironment improperly reorder their chromatin — the DNA-containing material that chromosomes are composed of — when attempting to repair.
This and other findings highlighted in the report point to the possibility of new treatments, such as small-molecule therapies, that could restore order to the affected cells.
“Interestingly, we were able to explain the role of mechanical forces on the 3-D organization of chromatin by developing a theory that integrates fundamental thermodynamic principles (physics) with the kinetics of epigenetic regulation (biology),” said study co-author and CEMB Director Vivek Shenoy in a news release from Penn Medicine News.
The CEMB, one of 18 active interdisciplinary research centers funded by the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology Center (STC) program, brings together dozens of researchers from Penn Engineering and the Perelman School of Medicine, as well as others spread across campus and at partner institutions around the world.
With its funding recently renewed for another five years, the CEMB has entered into a new phase of its mission, centered on the nascent concept of “mechanointelligence,” which is exemplified by studies like this one. While mechanobiology is the study of the physical forces that govern the behavior of cells and their communication with their neighbors, mechanointelligence adds another layer of complexity: attempting to understand the forces that allow cells to sense, remember and adapt to their environments.
Ultimately, harnessing these forces would allow researchers to help multicellular organisms — plants, animals and humans — better adapt to their environments as well.
With appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, as well as the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Penn Arts & Science, and the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry in Penn Perelman’s School of Medicine, Dani S. Bassett is no stranger to following the thread of an idea, no matter where it might lead.
Those wide-ranging fields and disciplines orbit around an appropriate central question: how does the tangle of neurons in our brains wire itself up to learn new things? Bassett, J. Peter Skirkanich Professor and director of the Complex Systems Lab, studies the relationship between the shape of those networks of neurons and the brain’s abilities, especially the way the shape of the network grows and changes with the addition of new knowledge.
To get at the fundamentals of the question of curiosity, Bassett needed to draw on even more disciplines. Fortunately, they didn’t have to look far; Bassett’s identical twin is Perry Zurn, a professor of philosophy at American University, and the two have investigated the many different ways a person can exhibit curiosity.
Bassett and Zurn have now published a new book on the subject. In Curious Minds: The Power of Connection, the twins draw on their previous research, as well as an expansive network of ideas from philosophy, history, education and art.
“It wasn’t clear at the beginning of our careers that we would even ever have a chance to write a book together because our areas were so wildly different,” Bassett says – but then, as postgraduates, Zurn was studying the philosophy of curiosity while Bassett was working on the neuroscience of learning. “And so that’s when we started talking. That talking led to seven years of doing research together,” Bassett says. “This book is a culmination of that.”
How exactly do philosophy and neuroscience complement each other? It all starts with the book’s first, and most deceptively simple question: what is curiosity? “Several investigators in science have underscored that perhaps the field isn’t even ready to define curiosity and how it’s different from other cognitive processes,” says Bassett. The ambiguity in the neuroscience literature motivated Bassett to turn to philosophy, “where there are really rich historical definitions and styles and subtypes that we can then put back into neuroscience and ask: ‘Can we see these in the brain?’”
Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, is one of this year’s recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. The award is given to early-career faculty researchers who demonstrate the potential to be role models in their field and invest in the outreach and education of their work.
Mitchell’s award will fund research on techniques for “immunoengineering” macrophages. By providing new instructions to these cells via nanoparticles laden with mRNA and DNA sequences, the immune system could be trained to target and eliminate solid tumors. The award will also support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab over the next five years.
The project aligns with Mitchell’s larger research goals and the current explosion of interest in therapies that use mRNA, thanks to the technological breakthroughs that enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
“The development of the COVID vaccine using mRNA has opened doors for other cell therapies,” says Mitchell. “The high-priority area of research that we are focusing on is oncological therapies, and there are multiple applications for mRNA engineering in the fight against cancer.”
A new wave of remarkably effective cancer treatments incorporates chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy. There, a patient’s T-cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infections, are genetically engineered to identify, target and kill individual cancer cells that accumulate in the circulatory system.
However, despite CART-T therapy’s success in treating certain blood cancers, the approach is not effective against cancers that form solid tumors. Because T-cells are not able to penetrate tumors’ fibrous barriers, Mitchell and his colleagues have turned to another part of the immune system for help.
The award from Japan’s oldest private university honors outstanding contributions to medicine and life sciences.
Carl June,the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, has been named a 2022 Keio Medical Science Prize Laureate. He is recognized for his pioneering role in the development of CAR T cell therapy for cancer, which uses modified versions of patients’ own immune cells to attack their cancer.
The Keio Medical Science Prize is an annual award endowed by Keio University, Japan’s oldest private university, which recognizes researchers who have made an outstanding contribution to the fields of medicine or the life sciences. It is the only prize of its kind awarded by a Japanese university, and eight laureates of this prize have later won the Nobel Prize. Now in its 27th year, the prize encourages the expansion of researcher networks throughout the world and contributes to the well-being of humankind.
“Dr. June exemplifies the spirit of curiosity and fortitude that make Penn home to so many ‘firsts’ in science and medicine,” said Penn President Liz Magill. “His work provides hope to cancer patients and their families across the world, and inspiration to our global community of physicians and scientists who are working to develop the next generation of treatments and cures for diseases of all kinds.”
The National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship Program aims to support graduate students, educate the STEM leaders of tomorrow and strengthen the national research infrastructure. The program’s latest series of grants are going toward university programs focused on artificial intelligence and quantum information science and engineering – two areas of high priority in academia, industry and government.
Chinedum Osuji, Eduardo D. Glandt Presidential Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), has received one of these grants to apply data science and machine learning to the field of soft materials. The grant will provide five years of support and a total of $3 million for a new Penn project on Data Driven Soft Materials Research.
Osuji will work with co-PIs Russell Composto, Professor and Howell Family Faculty Fellow in Materials Science and Engineering, Bioengineering, and in CBE, Zahra Fakhraai, Associate Professor of Chemistry in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) with a secondary appointment in CBE, Paris Perdikaris, Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and Andrea Liu, Hepburn Professor of Physics and Astronomy in SAS, all of whom will help run the program and provide the connections between the multiple fields of study where its students will train.
These and other affiliated faculty members will work closely with co-PI Kristin Field, who will serve as Program Coordinator and Director of Education.
The Penn Center for Precision Engineering for Health (CPE4H) was established late last year to accelerate engineering solutions to significant problems in healthcare. The center is one of the signature initiatives for Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and is supported by a $100 million commitment to hire faculty and support new research on innovative approaches to those problems.
Acting on that commitment, CPE4H solicited proposals during the spring of 2022 for seed grants of $80K per year for two years for research projects that address healthcare challenges in several key areas of strategic importance to Penn: synthetic biology and tissue engineering, diagnosis and drug delivery, and the development of innovative devices. While the primary investigators (PIs) for the proposed projects were required to have a primary faculty appointment within Penn Engineering, teams involving co-PIs and collaborators from other schools were eligible for support. The seed program is expected to continue for the next four years.
“It was a delight to read so many novel and creative proposals,” says Daniel A. Hammer, Alfred G. and Meta A. Ennis Professor in Bioengineering and the Inaugural Director of CPE4H. “It was very hard to make the final selection from a pool of such promising projects.”
Judged on technical innovation, potential to attract future resources, and ability to address a significant medical problem, the following research projects were selected to receive funding.
Evolving and Engineering Thermal Control of Mammalian Cells
Led by Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, this project will engineer molecular switches that can be toggled on and off inside mammalian cells at near-physiological temperatures. Successful development of these switches will provide new ways to communicate with cells, an advance that could be used to make safer and more effective cellular therapies. The project will use directed evolution to generate and find candidate molecular tools with the desired properties. Separately, the research will also develop new technology for manipulating cellular temperature in a rapid and programmable way. Such devices will enhance the speed and sophistication of studies of biological temperature regulation.
A Quantum Sensing Platform for Rapid and Accurate Point-of-Care Detection of Respiratory Viral Infections
Combining microfluidics and quantum photonics, PI Liang Feng, Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, Ritesh Agarwal, Professor in Materials Science Engineering, and Shu Yang, Joseph Bordogna Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, are teaming up with Ping Wang, Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, to design, build and test an ultrasensitive point-of-care detector for respiratory pathogens. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a generalizable platform for rapid and accurate detection of viral pathogenesis would be extremely important and timely.
Versatile Coacervating Peptides as Carriers and Synthetic Organelles for Cell Engineering
PI Amish Patel, Associate Professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Matthew C. Good, Associate Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Perelman School of Medicine and in Bioengineering, will design and create small proteins that self-assemble into droplet-like structures known as coacervates, which can then pass through the membranes of biological cells. Upon cellular entry, these protein coacervates can disassemble to deliver cargo that modulates cell behavior or be maintained as synthetic membraneless organelles. The team will design new chemistries that will facilitate passage across cell membranes, and molecular switches to sequester and release protein therapeutics. If successful, this approach could be used to deliver a wide range of macromolecule drugs to cells.
Towards an Artificial Muscle Replacement for Facial Reanimation
Cynthia Sung, Gabel Family Term Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics and Computer Information Science, will lead a research team including Flavia Vitale, Assistant Professor of Neurology and Bioengineering, and Niv Milbar, Assistant Instructor in Surgery in the Perelman School of Medicine. The team will develop and validate an electrically driven actuator to restore basic muscle responses in patients with partial facial paralysis, which can occur after a stroke or injury. The research will combine elements of robotics and biology, and aims to produce a device that can be clinically tested.
“These novel ideas are a great way to kick off the activities of the center,” says Hammer. “We look forward to soliciting other exciting seed proposals over the next several years.”
In a new book ‘Curious Minds: The Power of Connection,’ Penn’s Dani S. Bassett and twin sibling Perry Zurn weave together history, linguistics, network science, neuroscience, and philosophy to unpack the concept of curiosity.
Bugs. Sometimes, something just bugs you. A worm in your ear. We have all had the experience. You are going about your day, and something prompts you to wonder. You mull it over. You try on this explanation, or that one. And then you get distracted, and you move on. Or maybe you don’t, and the worm digs in deeper. Or maybe you do, but the worm returns to its wriggling later that night. You can’t shake it off. Maybe you pull out your phone or strike a few keys—or turn to a colleague or ping a friend. Gosh, now you really want to know! Perhaps you hit a few walls—paywalls or prejudices, differences of opinion or the limits of science, or even congenial scoffing at your pet project. Depending on who you are, you might also encounter outright sexism or racism, classism or ableism—all ways of telling you your bug is a bust. Forget this fleeting interest and focus on something that matters.
Regardless, let’s say, you carry on. Maybe the kids are screaming, or you are in a meeting, or you drive to the store for milk. Despite bombastic blasts from every corner, you hold on to what’s bugging you, refusing to let it bugger off. And then it happens … your mind begins to dance and to weave. Collecting the bits of things that might be relevant and stitching them together. So builds the briefest of webs. Perhaps it was a silkworm after all! Now you are really getting somewhere. This is your brain on curiosity.
And you are in good company. Rewind back to 1928, if you will. Virginia Woolf is sitting on the banks of a river (the Thames, the Cam, the Isis), and she has a worm in her ear: women and fiction. What even are they? she wonders. “Questions,” she calls them, “unsolved problems.” She finds herself walking and thinking, calmly at first and then feverishly. Crisscrossing the Brontë sisters and George Eliot, Charles Lamb and William Thackeray, she wonders not only about women and about fiction, but about their relation and the several ways in which it can be characterized. She strides by the nearby university, a place filled—as she puts it—with obsolete old minds, bereft of body and free of fact, loosed from the roughshod rambling toward truth she is currently undertaking. And then there it is!
Thought—to call it by a prouder name than it deserved—had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither, among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it, until—you know the little tug—the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line….
Dani S. Bassett is the J. Peter Skirkanich Professor at the University of Pennsylvania with a primary appointment in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Bioengineering and secondary appointments in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Physics & Astronomy, SEAS’ Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, and the Perelman School of Medicine’s Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry.
Perry Zurn is an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in philosophy at American University in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Philosophy and Religion.
In 2005, John Ioannidis published a bombshell paper titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” In it, Ioannidis argued that a lack of scientific rigor in biomedical research — such as poor study design, small sample sizes and improper assessment of the significance of data— meant that a large percentage of experiments would not return the same results if they were conducted again.
Since then, researchers’ awareness of this “replication crisis” has grown, especially in fields that directly impact the health and wellbeing of people, where lapses in rigor can have life-or-death consequences. Despite this attention and motivation, however, little progress has been made in addressing the roots of the problem. Formal training in rigorous research practices remains rare; while mentors advise their students on how to properly construct and conduct experiments to produce the most reliable evidence, few educational resources exist to support them.
Konrad Kording, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Computer and Information Science in Penn Engineering and the Department of Neuroscience in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, has been awarded one of the initiative’s first five grants.
“The replication crisis is real,” says Kording. “I’ve tried to replicate the research of others and failed. I’ve reanalyzed my own data and found major mistakes that needed to be corrected. I was never properly taught how to do rigorous science, and I want to improve that for the next generation.”
Therapies that use engineered cells to treat diseases, infections and chronic illnesses are opening doors to solutions for longstanding medical challenges. Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research that may be key to opening some of those doors.
Such cellular therapies take advantage of the complex molecular mechanisms that cells naturally use to interact with one another, enabling them to be more precise and less toxic than traditional pharmaceutical drugs, which are based on simpler small molecules. Cellular therapies that use engineered immune system cells, for example, have recently been shown to be highly successful in treating certain cancers and protecting against viral infections.
However, there is still a need to further fine-tune the behavior of cells in these targeted therapies. Bugaj and colleagues are addressing that need by developing new ways to communicate with engineered cells once they are in the body, such as turning molecular events on and off at specific times.
The research team recently discovered that both temperature and light can act as triggers of a specific fungal protein, dynamically controlling its location within a mammalian cell. By using light or temperature to instruct that protein to migrate toward or away from the cell’s membrane, Bugaj and his colleagues showed how it could serve as a key component in controlling the behavior of human cells.