Research at the Conte Center focuses primarily on Active Sensing and neuronal oscillations. Active sensing refers to the way that we constantly scan our environment with our senses to glean information about our surroundings. Neuronal oscillations are rhythmic patterns in neural activity. Increasingly, it seems that these are essential to everyday brain function. Increased recognition of these areas represents an ongoing paradigm shift within neuroscience.

Three mechanistic (linking) hypotheses unify the Center: 1) neuronal rhythms arise from the biophysical properties of local neuronal ensembles, but in Active Sensing, they are harnessed to behavioral goals by a consortium of prefrontal, parietal, motor system and thalamic mechanisms; 2) at a local circuit level, lower frequency (1-14 Hz) neuronal dynamics are used to parse (chunk), select (amplify vs suppress) and index (provide a reference frame for) sensory input, thus supplying the context for the representation of task-relevant sensory content; and 3) at a brain network level, the same low frequencies allow dynamic routing of information by facilitating communication between brain areas that are engaged by a particular task.

Our integrative research consists of three main activities:

1)    Direct ECoG recordings in human surgical epilepsy patients to define dynamical mechanisms of top-down control and coordination across cortical areas in Active Sensing. We recruit human subjects from six surgical epilepsy centers (Columbia, Northshore Hospital, Johns Hopkins, SUNY Albany, UC-Irvine, and Stanford).

2)    Recordings in nonhuman primates to elucidate and extend these ECoG findings in humans.

3)    Computational modeling of circuit dynamics at local (cell assembly) and global (brain network) levels to explore possibilities suggested by experimental data.

By tracking specific neuronal dynamics from the global level in humans down to the cellular and cell ensemble levels in monkeys, we aim to uncover novel and unique insights into the mechanisms of active brain operation. Computational modeling will allow rapid exploration of possibilities suggested by the human and monkey recordings and will help build accurate representations of our findings at both local and global scales.

The video included in this paper published by Center member Gerwin Schalk and colleagues gives a very helpful overview of how these strands fit together (please note the video contains possibly disturbing footage of electrodes being implanted into a subject’s brain):



The structure of the Conte Center consists of three main Cores and five main Projects:

Core A – Administrative and technical support, led by Charles Schroeder at Columbia University

Core B – data standardization and sharing, led by Gerwin Schalk at SUNY

Core C – imaging support, led by Michael Milham at the Nathan Kline Institute

Project 1 (ECoG) – Visual Active Sensing, led by Josef Parvizi at Stanford University and Maurizio Corbetta at Washington University

Project 2 (NHP) – Visual Active Sensing, led by Sabine Kastner at Princeton University

Project 3 (ECoG) – Auditory Active Sensing, led by Bob Knight at UC-Berkeley

Project 4 (NHP) – Auditory Active Sensing, led by Peter Lakatos and Charles Schroeder at Columbia University and the Nathan Kline Institute

Project 5 – Biophysical cellular circuit and network modeling, led by Nancy Kopell at Boston University