6/14/2017 Peter Durantine

Mathematics Models Provide Insight Into Brain Function

A room in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science is not where you would expect to find research on the neurological pathways of brain function; however, for a Franklin & Marshall professor, that’s life as a computational investigator.

“This is how math and computer science are being used to study the brain,” said Associate Professor of Mathematics Christina Weaver.

Overseeing a three-year project related to Huntington’s Disease and a special one-year project on aging, Weaver is working with two postdoctoral assistants: Hanbing Song, who earned a doctorate in applied science from the College of William & Mary, and Sara Ibañez, who has a doctoral degree in physics from Spain’s University of the Basque Country.  

  • At work with Weaver (center) in Stager Hall, postdoctoral assistants Hanbing Song and Sara Ibañez. Image Credit: Deb Grove

At work on computers in a second-floor room in Stager Hall, the researchers are developing mathematics models to help biologists understand the effect the disease and aging has on brain function. Their work continues the math-modeling techniques and methods Weaver began as a postdoctoral researcher herself, before arriving at F&M in 2009.

“Hanbing and I are using the same methods in a different context for Huntington’s. Sara is building a model at a different level -- not just individual neurons, but networked together.” Weaver said. “Her model simulates a general process of working memory that is affected by aging.”

Computational neuroscience uses general equations to describe brain activity at the single-cell and network levels – how neurons talk to one another or how they create their own signals, Weaver said. The researchers use biological and behavioral data to build their models.

“Then we change the equations’ parameters and fit them so they reproduce what we see in the lab,” Weaver said. “Kind of like simulation games.”

With math models, researchers can simulate things they can’t test in a laboratory. “You can’t control neurons the same way if they’re in a slice of brain tissue,” she said. “Math models allow you to see what happens when individual neurons are hooked together as they are in the brain.”

While on campus, Song and Ibañez will speak at seminars about their work, and may visit Weaver’s mathematics classes.

“It’s a nice opportunity for students,” Weaver said. “They get to see what happens when you put together math, computer science and biology.”

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