Prof. Noah Cowan awarded collaborative NIH grants to study spatial representations in the brain

September 4, 2018

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded Noah Cowan, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, two R01 research grants over the next five years to study spatial representations in the brain.

The projects are an interdisciplinary collaboration with Jim Knierim, professor of neuroscience at the School of Medicine and the Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Together, Cowan and Knierim aim to further our understanding of the hippocampus, a component of the brain that plays a major role in learning, memory, and spatial navigation.The team will receive funding from two NIH units— the National Institute of Mental Health andthe National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke —for projects entitled “A Control Theoretic Approach to Addressing Hippocampal Function” and “Dynamics of Gain Recalibration in the Hippocampal-Entorhinal Path Integration System.” The total grant amount for both projects is over $3.5M.

The crux of the duo’s innovative approaches is a custom augmented reality system built by their students Manu Madhav and Ravi Jayakumar. Using this system, the five-year projects will investigate how neurons in the hippocampus and related structures construct mental maps of an organism’s environment by integrating the animal’s movement through space. Ultimately, the team aims to discover more about the connection between the internal and external spatial map in the hippocampus, and find relationships between how the brain integrates internal and external sensory cues. The research will provide crucial information about underlying brain circuitry that becomes disrupted in neurological and psychiatric disorders, including Alzheimer’s Disease, stroke, and schizophrenia, and may ultimately provide insights into potential treatments.

“Teaming up with Jim Knierim, a world’s leading expert in the hippocampus, allows us to address questions at the intersection of science and engineering that neither one of our groups could tackle individually,” said Cowan.

Cowan has pursued research in diverse areas related to neuromechanics, locomotion, control theory, system identification, and medical robotics. In addition to his most recent NIH funding, Cowan has received several other prestigious awards to support his work, including a Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) in 2010, and James S. McDonnell Foundation Scholar Award in Complex Systems in 2012.

The Research Project Grant (R01) is the original and historically oldest grant mechanism used by NIH. The R01 provides support for both basic, fundamental research as well as health-related research and development based on the mission of the NIH.

Grant information:

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