Physicist-Neuroscientist Brent Doiron to Lead the Grossman Center for Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior
May 4, 2021
The University of Chicago has recruited Brent Doiron, PhD, as the inaugural director of the Grossman Center for Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior. The Grossman Center, established with a gift from University of Chicago Trustee Sanford Grossman, AB’73, AM’74, PhD’75, fosters partnerships between theorists and experimentalists to address fundamental questions of how brain circuits generate complex human behaviors.
Doiron uses advanced mathematics to understand how networks of neurons process information about sensory inputs. Through close work with experimental neuroscientists, he has developed core theoretical insights on how neural circuits generate and propagate the variable dynamics observed in the brains of living animals.
Understanding how information is encoded and transmitted by networks of brain cells is a central challenge of neuroscience. “Individual neurons don’t behave dependably, and yet populations of neurons show coherent activity that is generally reliable,” Doiron says. “My goal is to understand how the architecture of neural circuits, their nonlinearities and adaptability, makes this possible.”
The human brain contains billions of neurons, and it will take statistical skills like Doiron’s to develop the theoretical models for this flood of information. He and his group have recently developed a model that elegantly describes how coordinated activity in neural circuits emerges from the noisy activity of individual neurons, which may help identify neural “signatures” associated with learning or disease.
The Grossman Center will address a major intellectual bottleneck in neuroscience research. Experimental investigations of the brain depend upon complex, immersive testing environments and invasive monitoring, with technologies like electrode implantation, optogenetics, and leading-edge microscopy. Rigorous theoretical constructs can help laboratory scientists sharpen experimental design to maximize the understanding generated from each experiment.
“Experts in mathematics and physics like Brent are valuable in both honing experiments to advance theory and analyzing the data generated,” notes John Maunsell, director of the University of Chicago’s Neuroscience Institute. “Embedding theorists with scientists proficient in emerging laboratory techniques, a distinctive strategy of the Grossman Center and the Neuroscience Institute, will accelerate discovery in multiple ways.”
Doiron’s work has won awards from multiple organizations focused on neuroscience innovation, including the National Institutes of Health’s BRAIN Initiative, the Simons Foundation Collaboration on the Global Brain, and the Department of Defense’s prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship. He comes to UChicago from the University of Pittsburgh, where he co-directed the program in neural computation at the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition, a joint venture with Carnegie Mellon University.
Doiron earned his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in physics from the University of Ottawa. His postdoctoral research at New York University was recognized with both an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and a Human Frontier Long-Term Fellowship.The Grossman Center is closely affiliated with UChicago’s interdisciplinary Neuroscience Institute, an umbrella for investigations spanning biological, social, and physical sciences and the humanities. The Neuroscience Institute, established in 2011 through an earlier gift from Sanford Grossman, has elevated the field at UChicago, where a new neuroscience major has already become one of the most popular areas of study in the University’s College.