New Faculty: Interview With Konrad Kording

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Konrad Kording, PhD

This week, we present our interview with incoming faculty member Konrad Kording, who starts as a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor in the Department of Bioengineering and the Department of Neuroscience in the Perelman School of Medicine. Konrad and Andrew Mathis discuss what neuroscience is and isn’t, the “C” word (consciousness), and what it’s like for a native of Germany to live in the United States.

 

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Uncertainty Investigated by Neuroscience

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Uncertainty is part of life, but the underlying neuroscience of how we make decisions under conditions of uncertainty is only beginning to be understood. In a paper published Monday by Nature Human Behaviour, new Penn Bioengineering faculty member and Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Konrad Kording, Ph.D., and his coauthor, Iris Vilares, Ph.D., of University College London, offer additional evidence that dopamine lies at the heart of how the brain operates when there is a lack of certainty.

Drs. Kording and Vilares devised a simple computerized test that examined the extent to which test takers relied on previous knowledge vs. what they saw at the present moment. They then administered the test to a cohort of patients with Parkinson’s disease, a condition associated with depleted dopamine levels. The patients were tested both while taking dopaminergic medication and while off it. They found that dopaminergic medication caused the patients to pay greater attention to sensory (i.e., visual) information — an effect that diminished as the patients learned. Ultimately, the study provided evidence that dopamine levels were related to the tendency to rely on new information, also called likelihood uncertainty.

“Scientists believe that understanding uncertainty is key to understanding how the brain computes,” Dr. Kording says. “There are many theories in this space. We provide fairly clean evidence for one of them, which is that dopamine encodes likelihood uncertainty. This information could change the way people think about the manner in which the brain deals with uncertainty.”

Mind Control and an Ethical Appeal

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A “wiring diagram of the human brain,” produced using diffusion MRI scans of the brain.

A group of four scholars from the University of Pennsylvania, including Bioengineering professor Danielle Bassett, have issued a call in the journal Nature Human Behaviour for greater safeguards for patients as treatments in the field of neuroscience evolve and come ever closer to resembling “mind control.”

“While we don’t believe,” Bassett said, “that the science-fiction idea of mind control, totally overriding a person’s autonomy, will ever be possible, new brain-focused therapies are becoming more specific, targeted and effective at manipulating individuals’ mental states. As these techniques and technologies mature, we need systems in place to make sure they are applied such that they maximize beneficial effects and minimize unwanted side effects.”

Read more at the Penn News Web Site.

Chow Wins NIH Grant for Brain Study

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Brian Chow, Ph.D.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a grant to Brian Chow, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering, to study ultrafast genetically encoded voltage indicators (GEVIs). GEVIs are proteins that can detect changes in the electrical output of cells and report those changes by emitting different color light. His research seeks to create GEVIs that can report these changes much more rapidly – in fact, more than a million times more quickly than the velocity of the changes themselves – and apply these ultrafast GEVIs to the study of the brain.

The NIH-funded research will build on earlier research, employing de novo fluorescent proteins (dFPs) created in Dr. Chow’s lab. These dFPs, which are totally artificial and unrelated to natural proteins, report voltage changes in neurons by changing in brightness. Working with a team of investigators that includes faculty members from the Departments of Biochemistry & Biophysics and Neuroscience, Dr. Chow hopes to develop these ultrafast GEVIs.

“Monitoring thousands of neurons in parallel will shed new light on cognition, learning and memory, mood, and the physiological underpinnings of nervous system disorders,” he says.

Danielle Bassett on Social Networks, Brain Activity

danielle bassett
Danielle Bassett, PhD
Danielle Bassett, Eduardo D. Glandt Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in the departments of Bioengineering and Electrical and Systems Engineering, recently collaborated with colleagues from the Annenberg School for Communication and elsewhere, applying her network science approach to the brain to a study of social networks.

When someone talks about using “your network” to find a job or answer a question, most people understand that to mean the interconnected web of your friends, family, and acquaintances. But we all have another key network that shapes our life in powerful ways: our brains.

In the brain, impulses whiz from one brain region to another, helping you formulate all of your thoughts and decisions. As science continues to unlock the complexities of the brain, a group of researchers has found evidence that brain networks and social networks actually influence and inform one another.

The study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the brain’s response to social exclusion under fMRI, particularly in the mentalizing system, which includes separate regions of the brain that help us consider the views of others.

It found that people who show greater changes in connectivity in their mentalizing system during social exclusion compared to inclusion tend to have a less tightly knit social network — that is, their friends tend not to be friends with one another. By contrast, people with more close-knit social networks, in which many people in the network tend to know one another, showed less change in connectivity in their mentalizing regions.

Continue reading.

Konrad Kording: A Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Coming to Penn BE

konrad kording
Konrad Kording, PhD

The Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania is proud to announce that Konrad Kording, PhD, currently professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, physiology, and applied mathematics at Northwestern University, will join the BE faculty in the fall.

Dr. Kording, a neuroscientist with advanced degrees in experimental physics and computational neuroscience, is a native of Germany. After earning his PhD in 2001 at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, he held fellowships at University College, London, and MIT before arriving at Northwestern in 2006.

Kording’s groundbreaking interdisciplinary research uses data science to understand brain function, improve personalized medicine, collaborate with clinicians to diagnose diseases based on mobile phone data, and even understand the careers of professors.  Across many areas of biomedical research, his group analyzes large datasets to test new models and thus get closer to an understanding of complex problems in bioengineering, neuroscience, and beyond.

Dr. Kording’s appointment will be shared between the BE Department and the Department of Neuroscience in the Perelman School of Medicine.