Brown brain scientist wins early-career award from National Academy of Sciences

The National Academy of Sciences has named Michael J. Frank, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, one of two recipients from across the nation of the 2021 Troland Research Award.

Every year, the academy presents two Troland Awards in the amount of $75,000 each “to recognize unusual achievement by early-career researchers and to further empirical research within the broad field of experimental psychology.” The award was established by a trust created in 1931 by the bequest of Leonard T. Troland, a prodigious physicist and psychologist whose life was cut tragically short.

“It’s an honor to be a recipient of the Troland Award,” said Frank, who directs the Center for Computational Brain Science at Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science. “I’m humbled to be paired with the great scientists who have previously received this recognition.”

Frank’s research is based in the field of computational cognitive neuroscience, which combines multiple levels of computation with different types of data in an effort to improve understanding of the link between brain and mind, with a particular focus on brain circuits controlling motivated cognition and behavior. He has leveraged insights from this work to improve prediction and guide treatment of brain disorders, helping to define the emerging field of computational psychiatry and neurology.

“We’re trying to understand the mechanisms of motivation in the brain — how they interact with cognition, decision-making and learning,” he said. “Those principles can extend to a host of disorders in brain health.”

Through computational models and original experimentation, Frank’s work has advanced the understanding of underlying cognitive algorithms and their biological mechanisms. His research builds a link from psychological and neuroscientific insights to clinical practice, and has contributed to the understanding of decision-making and cognitive deficits in Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia as well as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Frank, who joined the Brown University faculty in 2009, said the $75,000 award will enable him to pursue projects that aren’t directly supported by federal or foundation grants. His research group would like to explore riskier research questions and develop ideas at the exploratory level that could then lead to larger-scale funding, he said. As one example, he has considered research at the interaction between artificial intelligence, which powers things like voice recognition programs and automated cars, and natural intelligence.

“Over the past few decades, computational approaches have helped us learn a lot about the problems the human brain is solving, while neuroscience and psychology have provided important clues as to how,” Frank said. “We’d like to go the other way, too, and take some of the ideas that we’ve gleaned from biological computation and scale them up so that we can help improve AI.”

As part of the Carney Institute’s broader focus on understanding the brain and applying that knowledge to improve lives, Frank will continue to work toward advancements that can impact human brain health, as well.

“My overall hope for our research is that some of the insights from using computational methods to understand brain and mind can lead to tangible applications for people,” he said. “We want to take the insights about the mechanisms that we’ve studied from a computational perspective and say something concrete about the individual person and how they might benefit from one treatment or another. There are only a few examples in mental health in which we, as a community, have been able to do that — Parkinson’s disease is one of them. But we’d love for that to extend to other disorders that are really impacting quality of life.”

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