Neuroengineer Joshua Jacobs Wins NSF CAREER Award

Aug 28 2019 | By Holly Evarts | Photo Credit: Jeffrey Schifman

Joshua Jacobs, associate professor of biomedical engineering, has won a National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development award for his research on how the human brain supports spatial navigation and memory. Such understanding could shed light on how the brain supports various types of memory processes and perhaps lead to treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease. The five-year $558,865 grant is the NSF’s most prestigious honor given to early-career faculty.

As part of Jacobs’ project, “Characterizing mechanisms of navigation and memory using direct human brain recording and stimulation,” his group is directly recording brain activity from neurosurgical patients who have electrodes surgically implanted as part of treatment for their epilepsy. Via customized virtual reality environments on laptop computers, study participants are asked to perform several types of navigation tasks designed to distinguish neural signals corresponding to spatial and non-spatial memory at different scales.

“It’s been very rare to get direct data from human neurons during behavioral tasks,” Jacobs says. “Most brain recordings have been acquired either from animals, such as rats whose brains are not identical to humans, or from noninvasive neuroimaging, which is not as precise as the direct data that we are now obtaining. Our findings should help us not only to identify the fundamental types of brain signals that support spatial navigation but also to compare how these signals differ across brain structures and species.” 

In characterizing the neural mechanisms underlying spatial navigation and memory in the human brain, Jacobs is focused on a deep structure called the medial temporal lobe (MTL). He will use the newly acquired data to analyze the patterns of brain activity to understand how spatial and memory information is represented across the brain, including both local neural signals in individual regions as well as interactions between brain structures.

Together with recording brain activity, Jacobs safely applies targeted patterns of electrical stimulation to patients’ brains during certain parts of these tasks, enabling him to test how behavior varies when selected brain regions are stimulated. To identify how information propagates between these regions, he is characterizing the functional role of a new phenomenon his group recently identified, cortical traveling waves, in which oscillations propagate across the brain to coordinate inter-region communication.

The NSF award is also supporting educational and outreach programs to advance neuroscience education and research at both the K-12 and University levels. These include new curricula on the neuroscience of navigation and memory at New York City schools, which transforms young students into “citizen scientists” by using novel augmented reality tools to explore spatial memory in everyday situations.

Jacobs’ group is collaborating closely with neurosurgeons and neurologists at several hospitals, including Columbia University Irving Medical Center, University of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson University, Emory University, and University of Texas.

Jacobs joins eight other Columbia Engineering professors this year to win an NSF CAREER award. Since 2015, 26 Columbia Engineering faculty members have now been honored with this prominent award.