UCL professor Tim Behrens is awarded £75,000 for innovative neuroscience research

Writer: Alexandra Gilbert
Editor: Karolay Lorenty Vera


It is a tremendous honour to announce that one of Oxford and UCL’s very own Professor of Neuroscience, Tim Behrens, is the Laureate for the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists, in the field of Life Sciences. 

The Blavatnik Family Foundation and New York Academy of Sciences have recognised his enormous contributions to brain imaging and computational modelling. He will receive £75,000 in funding for his future research. Globally, this is the largest monetary award that scientists can utilise purely to advance their research ideas – no strings attached.

What monumental breakthroughs did Behrens achieve to win this award? 

Human studies are severely limited given that they cannot be as invasive as post-mortem or animal studies. Even with the revolutionary invention of non-invasive brain imaging, the data acquired from these scans are poorly understood, due to our inherent lack of knowledge of how the human brain ticks in its natural environment. 

Prof. Tim Behrens has made impressive moves to change that. 

From the start of his career, Prof. Behrens contributed toward brain imaging by refining the data acquisition and analysis processes for functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetic resonance diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). His work focused on creating refined algorithms for fMRI scans that accurately represent what a brain signal might mean in a clinical context. For the first time, scientists and clinicians could more precisely interpret imaging data based on numerous subjects in a non-invasive fashion. 

This has implications for surgery, brain development and disease, and unravelling the mysteries of human cognition and behaviour. 

The intensely intricate workings of learning and cognition became Behren’s focus. His lab found that learning, or training, changes the anatomy of white matter connections between distinct areas of the brain.  

From this point, learning, knowledge and decision-making are at the forefront of his latest research. Prof. Behrens has triumphed in mapping weighted decision-making processes. Decisions, as reported in his paper in Nature Neuroscience (2006), are made according to the integration of, not only predicted reward of the decision, but also its predicted social value. 

To this day, Behrens continues to transform the traditional views of how decision-making, knowledge and cognition are processed in the brain. For example, our spatial navigation in the brain has a well-characterised “map” where distinct areas (the hippocampus and entorhinal cortices) relate to positional information within one’s environment. Behrens compounded on this idea by showing that our place in space is dependent on the associative “strength” between areas of the spatial map.

What challenged this idea even further was the lab’s discovery that these “cognitive maps” exist for non-spatial information too. Just as we are guided by these internal spatial maps to move about in the world around us, the same concept is true for driving our behaviour. 

Mind-boggling, and altogether a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around, given the novelty and genius that comes with asking such innovative questions.

As a result, below the age of 42, in what is considered an early career development in academia, Prof. Behrens is the Life Sciences Laureate for the Blavatnik Award for Young Scientists, funded by the Blavatnik Family Foundation. 

He is amongst two other Laureates that will be brandishing the awards in their respective fields of Chemistry and Physical Sciences & Engineering. The New York Academy of Sciences will welcome the public on the 5th of March 2020 to briefly witness the works of the Laureates and Finalists for the award. Details of the event can be found on their website

Congratulations to Prof. Tim Behrens and his lab! 

References

Behrens, T., Muller, T., Whittington, J., Mark, S., Baram, A., Stachenfeld, K., and Kurth-Nelson, Z. (2018). What Is a Cognitive Map? Organizing Knowledge for Flexible Behavior. Neuron 100, 490-509.

Behrens, T., Johansen-Berg, H., Woolrich, M., Smith, S., Wheeler-Kingshott, C., Boulby, P., Barker, G., Sillery, E., Sheehan, K., and Ciccarelli, O. et al. (2003). Non-invasive mapping of connections between human thalamus and cortex using diffusion imaging. Nature Neuroscience 6, 750-757.

Behrens, T., Woolrich, M., Walton, M., and Rushworth, M. (2007). Learning the value of information in an uncertain world. Nature Neuroscience 10, 1214-1221.

Garvert, M., Dolan, R., and Behrens, T. (2017). A map of abstract relational knowledge in the human hippocampal–entorhinal cortex. Elife 6.

Kennerley, S., Walton, M., Behrens, T., Buckley, M., and Rushworth, M. (2006). Optimal decision making and the anterior cingulate cortex. Nature Neuroscience 9, 940-947.

Smith, S., Jenkinson, M., Woolrich, M., Beckmann, C., Behrens, T., Johansen-Berg, H., Bannister, P., De Luca, M., Drobnjak, I., and Flitney, D. et al. (2004). Advances in functional and structural MR image analysis and implementation as FSL. Neuroimage 23, S208-S219.

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