This weekend, two North­eastern Uni­ver­sity researchers will take part in a highly selec­tive inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion that seeks to unravel the mys­teries of the brain’s neural net­works, thereby laying ground­work for break­throughs in the field of neuroscience.

Assis­tant pro­fes­sors Armen Stepa­nyants, of the physics depart­ment, and Deniz Erdogmus, of elec­trical and com­puter engi­neering, will lead sep­a­rate teams in the DIADEM (Dig­ital Recon­struc­tion of Axonal and Den­dritic Mor­phology) Challenge.

The competition—to be held from Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 in the Wash­ington, D.C., area—looks for inno­v­a­tive ways of cre­ating a func­tional “atlas” of the brain, par­tic­u­larly via three-​​dimensional com­puter imaging.
Nerve cells have a tree-​​like struc­ture, with axons and den­drites that branch off to form con­nec­tions that serve spe­cific brain functions.

And the brain has bil­lions of these neu­rons, Stepa­nyants explains. Tracing only one of them by tra­di­tional manual means can take a researcher as much as two weeks. That’s why neu­ro­sci­en­tists are so eager to use com­puter map­ping tools to auto­mate the recon­struc­tion of neural net­works.
Enter the DIADEM Challenge.

Neu­ro­sci­en­tists would like algo­rithms that auto­mate a bulk of the work so they can extract infor­ma­tion from the large image data­bases that they acquire,” says Erdogmus, who will par­tic­i­pate in the com­pe­ti­tion with one of his Ph.D. stu­dents, Erhan Bas.

Stepanyants’s team will include Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence grad­uate stu­dents Parth Chothani and Vivek Mehta.

Having 3D-​​image recon­struc­tion algo­rithms would help neu­ro­sci­en­tists under­stand how both healthy and unhealthy neural sys­tems work, Erdogmus says. This could lead to a better under­standing of how the brain stores mem­o­ries and why people develop neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The DIADEM Chal­lenge was orga­nized by the Allen Insti­tute for Brain Sci­ence; the Howard Hughes Med­ical Insti­tute; and the Krasnow Insti­tute for Advanced Study, at George Mason Uni­ver­sity. The two North­eastern teams are among the five final­ists selected from the more than 100 teams that registered.

This is a good sign of the quality of research being done here at North­eastern,” Erdogmus says.

Both North­eastern team leaders have exper­tise in brain-​​functionality research. Stepa­nyants is fas­ci­nated with com­pu­ta­tional neuroscience—particularly the prin­ci­ples of synaptic con­nec­tivity in the cere­bral cortex. In 2008, he received a National Insti­tutes of Health grant for automating neuron recon­struc­tion from 3D microscopy image stacks, research directly related to the DIADEM Challenge.

Erdogmus’s research includes the devel­op­ment of a brain-​​computer inter­face that uses sig­nals from a human’s visual cortex to con­trol a robot’s move­ments. Appli­ca­tions derived from this research may someday guide mil­i­tary vehi­cles or assist human-​​cognitive or sensory-​​motor func­tions in dis­abled or neu­ro­log­i­cally impaired users.

For the final DIADEM com­pe­ti­tion, each team will work sep­a­rately in envi­ron­ments that mimic the dynamics of real labs and will col­lab­o­rate with neu­ro­sci­en­tists, whose own data will test the teams’ algorithms.

Erdogmus says he expects par­tic­i­pating in the chal­lenge to lead to useful con­nec­tions with other researchers in the field as well as to future research projects.