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Fralin Biomedical Research Leader to Share Groundbreaking Brain Research at Nobel Symposium

People like when their predictions are right, and they hate when their predictions are wrong.

Read Montague was among the early researchers who proposed the novel idea that dopamine neurons played a role in reward prediction errors – the difference between what we expect and what we receive – and theorized that it was an evolutionary trait fundamental to human decision making. What should we run toward? What should we run from?

Now Montague, director of the Center for Human Neuroscience Research, the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory, and the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, is one of seven world leaders in neuroscience invited to present his findings at an event sponsored and hosted by the Nobel Assembly in Stockholm. His talk, “Decoding human neuromodulatory signaling and its connection to reinforcement learning,” is part of a Nobel Mini-symposium on Sept. 8 and 9 at the Karolinksa Institutet.

By bringing together pioneers in the field, the Nobel Assembly is drawing attention to novel approaches in understanding psychiatric disease and highlighting how the latest research may transform how we think about psychiatric disorders.

Montague works in computational psychiatry, a new field he has helped develop in the last 15 years. It is now a major funding initiative at the National Institute of Mental Health at the National Institutes of Health. New technology has helped fuel advances.

Montague will share technology developed at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute that makes sub-second measurements of dopamine and serotonin in a living human brain, including in patients with Parkinson’s disease undergoing deep brain stimulation therapy and in children in epilepsy monitoring units having assessment of foci of seizures.

“Dopamine systems are hijacked by every drug of abuse,” said Montague, who is also a professor of physics in the College of Science at Virginia Tech. “Those are the neurons that die when you have Parkinson’s disease. It’s a system that at least in part is overactive in psychosis and schizophrenia. It’s involved with regulation of mood and its dysfunction.

“One approach to that is to capture them in equations and models that see the functions of the cells and their computations as interactions,” Montague said. “Computational psychiatry directs that research in the very practical and needful area of psychiatric function, both normal function and disease.”

The symposium is organized around the topic of dopamine as the part of the central nervous system that underlies reward prediction and the scientific study of mental and behavioral disorders. Montague will be sharing the latest discoveries with the world’s leading brain scientists. The talks will be posted online and accessible for the public after the event.

Read Montague is one of seven world leaders in neuroscience invited to present his findings at an event sponsored and hosted by the Nobel Assembly in Stockholm.

“Montague’s innovations in technology development and neurocomputational analytics have been truly revolutionary in leading a transformation of how the decision-making processes of the human brain work in health and disease,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “By simultaneously measuring the activity of both dopamine and serotonin — whose receptor and uptake sites are primary therapeutic targets for disorders ranging from depression to Parkinson’s disease — in the human brain, his work is opening entirely new windows into how the brain works.”

The symposium’s organizers aim to bring together scientists who are at the forefront of unraveling the role of dopamine neurons in reward prediction errors with researchers who have further developed the concept.

Other early researchers to this field who will also address attendees include physiologist Wolfram Schultz of the University of Cambridge and Peter Dayan, director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics and a professor at the University of Tübingen.

Dayan and Montague shared the title of editor-in-chief of Computational Psychiatry, a journal they founded in 2015 to focus on original research involving theoretical, computational, and statistical approaches to mental function and dysfunction. The two began working together 30 years ago as postdoctoral researchers in one of the country’s first computational neurobiology labs, trying to understand dopamine neurons in the brain stem.

“These are novel ways of understanding psychiatric disease, accelerated by radically new sources of information,” said Montague, whose research focuses on the connection between physical mechanisms in real neural tissue and the computational functions they embody. That the Nobel Assembly is turning a spotlight on the research is a recognition of its importance.

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