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GSU scientist awarded NSF CAREER grant to study decision making

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 – Jeremy Craig, University Relations

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A Georgia State University physics professor has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue research that may lead to a better understanding of neurological disorders.

The $539,737 grant, under the NSF CAREER program, will allow Mukesh Dhamala, assistant professor of physics, to study how the brain puts information together from the senses to help make decisions.

Previous research has shown that an area called the prefrontal cortex of the brain is involved in decision making, such as determining whether a traffic light is yellow or red.

“The brain receives thousands of sensations moment to moment, but a mechanism allows us to select what we want to, and also to shut out the others that are irrelevant for that moment,” he said. “We want to know how these signals interact with each other during a cognitive process like decision making.”

The research will help scientists understand different brain structures, and the research may have implications for understanding the dysfunction of neural communications in certain psychiatric and neurological disorders, Dhamala said.

In neurological disorders and diseases, like Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy, something is amiss because these neurons are not communicating with one another or communicating too much. Other disorders, like dyslexia, happen when sensory information cannot be put together in the brain. This research will help scientists better understand these communication links.

“If you know what the normal pathway is through different areas that should be communicating, you could possibly target your treatments toward those areas,” Dhamala said.

Dhamala will collaborate with neuroscientists Krish Sathian and Charles Epstein from the Emory University Department of Neurology in the research. It will also complement findings from another ongoing GSU-funded project on social decision making, a collaboration between Dhamala and a fellow CAREER awardee from GSU, Sarah Brosnan.

At Georgia State University, Dhamala is also part of a group of neuroscientists who are studying dynamic systems like neurons in the brain and muscle cells in the heart by using physics and mathematics, called dynamical neuroscience.

It uses equations to predict actions of systems that are constantly in flux. The researchers in this field at GSU include Dhamala, Andrey Shilnikov, Igor Belykh, Vladimire Bondarenko, Robert Clewley, and Gennady Cymbalyuk, who advance this emerging field that bridges life sciences, mathematics and physics. Their work is supported through grants from the National Science Foundation, Georgia State University internal grants and the American Heart Association.