IU Distinguished Professor Olaf Sporns honored for pioneering work on computational neuroscience

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Olaf Sporns. Photo by Maximillian Tortoriello Photography

Indiana University Distinguished Professor Olaf Sporns has been awarded the Patrick Suppes Prize from the American Philosophical Society in recognition of his "transformation of the understanding of the relation of brain to behavior."

Sporns is a professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. He received the award Nov. 10 at the American Philosophical Society's fall meeting in Philadelphia.

The Patrick Suppes Prize honors accomplishments in three scholarly fields, with the prize rotating each year between philosophy of science, psychology or neuroscience, and history of science. The award was presented by Richard Shiffrin, chair of the nominating committee at the American Philosophical Society.

"Olaf Sporns has pioneered a new and revolutionary way of thinking about brain function based on mapping and modeling the brain as a complex network," Shiffrin said. "As the founder of brain connectomics, he has led the neuroscience community to see that the neural basis of behavior lies in dynamic networks distributed across the brain. Yet it is not enough to identify associations between networks and behavior. Sporns has also shown how the networks produce behavior by identifying the causal structure and the processes by which the networks operate."

Much of Sporns' work involves studying the network architecture of the brain. After introducing the concept of the "human connectome," Sporns developed the first draft of a complete network map of the human cortex. This new view of the brain as an interconnected system revealed features such as highly connected "network hubs" that contribute to specific aspects of behavior and cognition.

His ongoing work combines computational modeling, information theory and network science to unravel patterns of information flow in brain networks. Beyond the human brain, Sporns' work extends to model organisms, with recent projects that address the network organization of the nervous system of fruit flies and the rodent cortex.

The global impact of connectomics has sparked a number of large consortia dedicated to mapping brain connectivity, including the National Institutes of Health-funded Human Connectome Project and the European Research Council-funded Developing Human Connectome Project.

In addition to more than 200 research articles, Sporns is the author of two academic books that provide a scholarly synthesis of how network science can contribute to our understanding of brain function. He is widely sought as a speaker at international meetings, and has organized a number of conferences and workshops devoted to connectomics and network science. Recently, he founded the new academic journal Network Neuroscience that covers cutting-edge research on the structure and function of brain networks, from molecular to systems scales.

Among his many honors, Sporns was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 2011 and was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2013.

Sporns is also an IU Provost Professor, the Robert H. Shaffer Chair in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and co-director of the IU Network Science Institute. He holds adjunct appointments at the IU School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering and the IU School of Medicine.

The American Philosophical Society, which was founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, recognizes extraordinary achievements in five classes of academic disciplines: mathematical and physical sciences; biological sciences; social sciences; humanities; and the arts, professions, and public and private affairs. Its membership has included some of the world's greatest thinkers, such as John J. Audubon, Robert Fulton, Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Alexander von Humboldt, Louis Pasteur, Albert Einstein, Robert Frost, George C. Marshall, Linus Pauling, Marie Curie and Margaret Mead.

Shiffrin is also an IU Distinguished Professor and the Luther Dana Waterman Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Elizabeth Rosdeitcher is a science writer with the IU Bloomington Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.