NSF awards IU grant to create new tools for big data research in neuroscience

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Franco Pestilli. Photo by Eric Rudd, IU Communications

Indiana University researchers will lead a $650,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's BRAIN Initiative to advance the frontiers of neuroscience and cognitive science by creating the blueprint for digital platforms that compile information on the brain and conduct reproducible "big data" research in neuroscience.

The NSF initiative award -- one of only 19 awarded this year -- is part of the NSF's effort to support fundamental research in brain science and accelerate the development of neuro-technologies that entail joint efforts between those in fields such as engineering, math, computer science, social and behavioral sciences, and education.

Franco Pestilli, assistant professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, will lead the grant, which will support a cloud-based computing platform called Brain Life that he and his team are developing.

"The system provides a pipeline for researchers to process data and get results," Pestilli said. It will also enable what he calls "the upcycling of data," by which researchers reuse data sets to develop their methods, train data scientists or test the reproducibility of results.

"There is enormous value in reclaiming the large volumes of brain data collected in hundreds of laboratories, much of which are underutilized and unpublished, in order to extend the usefulness of the information," Pestilli added. Brain Life gives researchers across the globe access to a platform on which to both analyze and share neuroscience data for purposes both research- and teaching-related.

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Franco Pestilli's research combines neuroscience and computer science, which can include data visualizations. This image shows two different methods to map white matter in the human brain. Photo courtesy Franco Pestilli

More specifically, Brain Life will allow neuroscientists to map various features of the brain, such as cortical segmentations, functional maps, connectivity matrices and white-matter tracts. These "data derivatives" can then be re-used by computer scientists, mathematicians, engineers and others to develop and improve the methods in their own domains and applied by neuroscientists.

Pestilli also points out the platform takes great strides toward addressing questions of reproducibility in neuroscience research by allowing diverse communities of scientists to operate on a common platform using shared tools and methods.

Ken Whang, director of the NSF Computer and Information Science and Engineering Program, applauds the "insight and courage" of those tackling such problems.

"These teams are combining their expertise to try to forge new paths forward on some of the most complex and important challenges of understanding the brain," he said. "They are posing problems in new ways, taking intellectual and technical risks that have huge potential payoff."

Other IU researchers on the award include Eleftherios Garyfallidis, assistant professor in the School of Informatics and Computing, and Robert Henschel, director for science community tools at IU's Pervasive Technology Institute.

Additional researchers on the grant are Ivo Dinov of the University of Michigan School of Nursing and Lei Wang of Northwestern University School of Medicine, each of whom will receive $92,000 of the total grant.

Pestilli, Dinov and Wang initiated the work that led to this grant under the sponsorship of the NSF-funded Advanced Computational Neuroscience Network, which is hosting a related workshop on Big Data Neuroscience from Sept. 8 to 9 in Bloomington.

Elizabeth Rosdeitcher is a science writer in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.