Campus postdoctoral researcher wins grant award for brain research

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A campus postdoctoral researcher received a $500,000 grant award last month for his role in a study that mapped out a semantic atlas of the human brain and its reaction to language.

Alexander Huth, who graduated from the campus Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute in 2013, conducted the study with a group of UC Berkeley researchers. The study suggested that related concepts are clustered into semantic domains found at multiple locations in the brain.

“Language is perhaps the most unique ability that humans have,” Huth said in an email. “More than that, language is a gateway to everything else we can do with our brains.”

Huth’s was awarded the Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s Career Award at the Science Interface along with 10 other postdoctoral researchers. Huth said the fund will help with his future researches and investigations.

The award provides funding for independent biomedical research every year, according to John Burris, president of the Burrough Wellcome Fund. Burris added that the award is intended to provide a beginning for postdoctoral “investigators.”

During the experiment, volunteers listened to the Moth Radio Hour, a storytelling broadcast, while a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, recorded information about their brain activity every two seconds.

The researchers used the fMRI to map out regions of the brain that responded to specific words and compared that with a model that they created before the study began that aimed to predict the brain’s response to new data. They proved that certain areas of the brain reacted to specific categories, such as people, numbers and images.

“For this reason, our lab seeks to create detailed functional maps of the brain and to relate those maps to the underlying anatomy,” said Jack Gallant, campus psychology professor and a researcher on the study.

For people who are affected by brain injuries that caused language impaired disabilities, this research offers a solution, according to professor Frederic Theunissen, who also partnered in the research. He said the research could potentially allow people who cannot speak to communicate their thoughts through a screen.

Subjects had to be completely still for two to three hours while listening to the broadcast. Huth, who was a subject himself, said the experience was “a thousand times more enjoyable than most brain imaging studies.”

“Using very interesting stories made it easy for our subjects to pay attention, which in turn gave us very good quality data,” Huth said in an email.

Huth hopes that this award will help him land a faculty job and added that he plans to apply the techniques he used during this research to his current project — exploring the relationship between the sound of words and their images.

Contact Stina Chang at [email protected].