Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi School Project Focuses on a Grey Area in the Grey Matter

Two graduate students win grant to explore the role non-neuron brain cells play in information processing. Success could have profound consequences for drug development
Bob Melisso
June 30, 2010 —

Viterbi School graduate students Viviane Ghaderi and Sushmita Allam have won a $100,000 competitive grant from the wireless telecommunications and technology company Qualcomm. The grant will enable research into how the brain’s non-neuron parts contribute to brain function.

Viviane Ghaderi, left, and Sushmita Allam

Ghaderi, a doctoral candidate from Germany, finds it exciting to be on the frontier of both neuroscience and engineering. Her advisor on the project is Alice Parker, a professor at the Viterbi School’s Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering.

“What I find interesting about the project is it’s really different from designing a chip for a cell phone or a computer," says Ghaderi. "This has a real application. You can have an impact in helping people and changing things for them. Just in terms of doing something new — this is something where you don’t just make an incremental change."

"I like helping people change things," she continued. "You can make a huge impact. With this research, we can have something that’s no one else has worked on before. It’s very different from a lot of engineering projects.”

The project she and fellow doctoral candidate Allam are pursuing is called “Modeling the Other Brain.” It will attempt to tease out the key role of cells other than neurons in brain functioning.

Professor Ted Berger
 Ghaderi and Allammet at a USC function and decided to collaborate together. They submitted a proposal for research funding from Qualcomm through the company’s Innovation Fellowship Program.

The company “is interested in research problems for the medium and long term," says Rajarshi Gupta, of corporate Research and Development at Qualcomm. "We are always looking at technical challenges in the future."

The company sees a benefit in supporting such basic research into how our brains work — even if the payoff is not in the immediate future.

Allam’s interest in the functioning of the nervous system started as a graduate student when she met Professor Ted Berger, who holds the David Packard Chair of Engineering.

“I started working in Dr. Berger’s lab on the EONS project – Elementary Objects of the Nervous System. Every moment since then has been an “ah-ha” moment for me.”

Berger is a professor in the Viterbi School Deparment of Biomedical Engineering and Director of the USC Center for Neural Engineering.

At first, Allam wanted to be a physician, but that changed when she thought of how she could have an even bigger impact on society.

“I wanted to be a doctor, but I realized that doctors can’t help but one person at a time. But perhaps within engineering you can find a solution that can help many people — you can help perhaps millions of people at the same time. All of this contributed to my wanting to become a biomedical engineer.”

Professor Parker decided to take a look at what she calls the “other” brain — the huge volume

Professor Alice Parker
in our cranium not made up of what most people think of as the working brain — neurons and synapses. Those structures make up only one-tenth of the brain’s volume.

“We’re looking at cells and functioning that is not typically modeled by people building artificial neurons or electronic brain cells.” says Parker. “We’re trying to take into account subtleties and complexities that were not well understood in the past. Typically the neural modeling that’s been done in the past has been simplified.”

Advances in the techniques of probing the brain are now allowing researchers like Parker and Berger to examine the structure of the brain and its functioning in greater and greater detail.

“The project that we're focusing on here has to do with how nerve cells transmit information from one cell to another,” says Berger.

“It's a very complicated process that involves many different types of electrical events and biochemical events and so we need to understand how they work together so that we can understand how information flows through the brain.”

“Up until now we have been leaving out a major contribution from a type of a cell called an astrocyte. These astrocytes appear to play an important role in synaptic transmission and they appear to play an important role in how neurons communicate information from one neuron to another,” says Berger.

“The payoff is gigantic. There's been this player all the time and we haven't really been thinking about how that player has been contributing to the team response. If we begin to factor that player in, it's going to completely change our understanding of how synaptic transmission works and, to be quite practical, it’ll change our understanding of how drugs work in the brain.”

How long do researchers think it would take to replicate a brains computing power?

“My estimate is five decades before we have something that behaves like a brain,” says Professor Parker.

While the technical challenges of creating an artificial brain may be overcome in the next few decades, Parker wonders if we’ll ever have two of the key ingredients that would make such a device more like a human brain.

“A thing that this (artificial brain) device would have to have would be something to generate curiosity and the drive to create something. It’s not clear how we could do that.”