AFRL/AFOSR Awards Grant for “Center of Excellence” Focused on the Neuroscience of Decision Making
Team led by neuroengineer Paul Sajda wins $5M from Air Force Research Laboratory and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to study human decision making in real-world environments.
Pilots landing their aircraft on a carrier deck or Wall Street hedge fund traders trying to reduce volatility in their portfolio have to make immediate decisions based on the context and conditions they are under. While researchers have made progress in understanding the neuroscience of decision making for simple decisions in humans and model (animal) systems, there is a huge gap between that and what actually happens in the brain for tasks that require multiple, interdependent decisions made under stress, fatigue, and time constraints.
A team led by Electrical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering Professor Paul Sajda, a leading neuroscience researcher, has won a $5 million five-year grant from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to establish an AFRL “center of excellence” (COE) focused on studying human decision making in real-world environments.
The new COE will take a multidisciplinary, multimodal, and multiscale approach to develop a comprehensive understanding of human decision making in real-world environments. Central to this approach is the design, development, and execution of experiments that enable linkage between decision making in animal models with data and tasks performed by humans.
“Our ability to integrate real-world evidence, combine it with our prior knowledge, weigh the costs of our actions, and ultimately generate a decision, is crucial to all aspects of our existence,” said Sajda, Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and professor of radiology (physics) and electrical engineering. “Some decisions we make seem simple, like deciding what to eat for breakfast, while others are more complex, such as deciding on a flight plan to fly from Dayton to New York. However, we also know that sometimes we struggle on deciding what to eat for breakfast, in spite of the fact that this seems like it should be an easy decision. Even simple decisions can be made more complex based on internal and external factors that are based on our prior beliefs, our expectations and even our levels of arousal and stress.”
Multidisciplinary team includes neural engineers, neuroscientists, biomedical engineers, and computer scientists
The COE brings together an internationally recognized team of neural engineers, neuroscientists, biomedical engineers, and computer scientists to tackle core questions of how our brain makes decisions, learns from its mistakes, and develops expertise. The co-PIs at Columbia include Columbia Engineering Professors Qi Wang (Biomedical Engineering), Steven Feiner (Computer Science), Michael Shadlen and Daniel Wolpert, both professors of neuroscience at the Zuckerman Institute for Mind, Brain, and Behavior.
“We are very excited that Columbia University will house our newest center of excellence,” said Gaurav Sharma, chief scientist in AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing. “Columbia has world-renowned experts in neuroscience, who also have a good deal of experience working with the Department of Defense on military-specific problems.”
Critical for understanding the neural basis of decision making requires not just investigating simple decisions under controlled conditions, but also complex decisions in realistic environments. The COE’s multimodal approach includes measurements and perturbations ranging from spiking activity and optogenetic stimulation to whole brain simultaneous EEG/fMRI and non-invasive vagal nerve stimulation (VNS).
We will probe human decision making in real-world settings by combining virtual reality (VR) with non-invasive neuroimaging and physiological measurements and neurostimulation. VR technologies allow us to readily change the environment to mimic real-world scenarios and to apply environmental stressors in the tasks.
- PAUL SAJDA,
PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL ENGINEERING
Innovative approach from microscale (animals) to macroscale (humans)
The multiscale aspect of the project is particularly innovative in that it uses computational modeling to relate microscale measures from animal studies that provide insight into the mechanistic underpinnings of decision-related neural processing with the macroscale measures from human neuroimaging and neurostimulation studies that inform how humans make complex decisions in naturalistic contexts.
Central to this approach is the design, development, and execution of experiments that enable the team to use data that link decision making in animal models with tasks performed by humans. The researchers will conduct both rodent and human experiments largely focused on rapid decision making, ones that must be made almost instantly. This focus will enable the team to use a variety of experimental and computational methods employed for reaction time tasks both in animals and humans. It will also map well to many real-world decision-making scenarios, including those of interest to the Department of Defense, such as choices made by fighter pilots and ISR (Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) operators.
“We will probe human decision making in real-world settings by combining virtual reality (VR) with non-invasive neuroimaging and physiological measurements and neurostimulation,” Sajda explained. “VR technologies allow us to readily change the environment to mimic real-world scenarios and to apply environmental stressors in the tasks.”
The CoE brings together leading experts from Columbia Engineering, the Zuckerman Institute, and the Data Science Institute, in a collaboration with the top AFRL researchers on current and future Air Force challenges surrounding decision-making. This new partnership also provides a broad range of opportunities for a new generation of United States scientists and engineers to address USAF and US Space Force research needs.
Columbia Engineering, based in New York City, is one of the top engineering schools in the U.S. and one of the oldest in the nation. Also known as The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School expands knowledge and advances technology through the pioneering research of its more than 250 faculty, while educating undergraduate and graduate students in a collaborative environment to become leaders informed by a firm foundation in engineering. The School’s faculty are at the center of the University’s cross-disciplinary research, contributing to the Data Science Institute, Earth Institute, Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Precision Medicine Initiative, and the Columbia Nano Initiative. Guided by its strategic vision, “Columbia Engineering for Humanity,” the School aims to translate ideas into innovations that foster a sustainable, healthy, secure, connected, and creative humanity.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the United States Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: http://www.afresearchlab.com/.