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NSF Career Award will support bioengineering research on the body’s neural connections

April 18, 2008

Research aimed at understanding how the brain combines different forms of sensory information to help plan and modify our physical movements will be supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Career Award recently won by Christopher Buneo, an assistant professor in the Harrington Department of Bioengineering in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

NSF Career Awards recognize scientists and engineers considered to be potential leaders in their fields.

The award will provide about $609,000 over five years for Buneo’s research, as well as for an educational program to develop material for a biotechnology course geared for high school students.

Buneo is studying how information about objects we perceive around us — their position and velocity — is transmitted to the brain by our senses, which describe our perceptions to us using different neural “languages.”

For example, he explains, “Our eyes provide information about the visual motion of a fly buzzing around us from the perspective of the direction in which we are looking. At the same time, our ears relay information — the buzzing sound generated by the flapping of the fly’s wings.”

If we want to reach out and swat the fly, the brain must combine information from our eyes and ears with information from our moving arm, “which speaks yet another neural language,” Buneo says.

”Clearly, some sort of ‘interpreter’ is needed to allow the senses to work together to perform this task,” he says.

It’s currently believed that the part of the brain known as the posterior parietal cortex may serve this interpreter role. But precisely how this is accomplished is unclear.

Buneo’s research seeks to understand the role of the posterior parietal cortex in the perception of the world around us, as well as its role in producing physical movements.

To do this, he records the activity of posterior parietal neurons as movements are made in a virtual-reality environment. This environment allows sensory information to be easily manipulated, which Buneo hopes will reveal the role of this neural information in movement production.

From a broad perspective, the work will lead to a better understanding of how our brains work. Buneo says this knowledge should help advance the development of technologies for people with nervous system dysfunction.

The education component of his work will involve using Career Award funding to incorporate neuroscience and neural engineering concepts into a high school course in biotechnology.

ASU bioengineering students will assist in developing and delivering the course work for select high school students in Gilbert public schools. Some of the high school students will have to an opportunity to do summer research internships at ASU.

Buneo teaches physiology for engineers to undergraduates in the school of engineering, and a graduate-level course in modeling and simulation of physiological systems.

He has been at ASU since 2005 after earning a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in physical therapy from Long Island University in New York and a Ph.D. in physiology from the University of Minnesota. He later worked at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., through a post-doctoral fellowship.

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