The European Research Council (ERC) is funding Dr. Caspar Schwiedrzik, junior research group leader at the European Neuroscience Institute (ENI), a joint initiative of the University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the Max Planck Society, and at the German Primate Center - Leibniz Institute for Primate Research, for his "excellent" basic research with one of the highest accolades in Europe. For his research into the learning processes of humans, rhesus monkeys and in computer models, he has been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant worth two million euros for a period of five years. This is already the second ERC grant for Dr. Schwiedrzik.
In the course of our lives, we learn many different skills and abilities. Often the same information is needed for two different tasks. For example, radiologists learn during their studies to distinguish benign from malignant tumors on X-ray images based on their shape. In other situations, however, radiologists need to consider other characteristics of the X-ray images, for example to assess calcifications. In order to be able to perform both tasks, they must therefore learn to make flexible decisions.
In the DimLearn project („Flexible Dimensionality of Representational Spaces in Category Learning“), a team of neuroscientists led by Dr. Caspar Schwiedrzik is investigating how flexible our thoughts and our perception are and what the neuronal basis for such flexibility is. The European Research Council (ERC) is funding the UMG-coordinated project with an ERC Consolidator Grant of two million euros for a period of five years, one of the highest awards in Europe for excellent scientists. This is already the second grant for Dr. Schwiedrzik, who received an ERC Starting Grant for his research in 2018 and heads the junior research groups "Neural Circuits and Cognition" at the European Neuroscience Institute (ENI), a joint initiative of the University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the Max Planck Society, and "Perception and Plasticity" at the German Primate Center (DPZ) - Leibniz Institute for Primate Research in Göttingen. "I am delighted and honored that the European Research Council has once again recognized my research achievements and made the implementation of the new project possible," says Dr. Caspar Schwiedrzik.
The DIMLEARN project
The "DimLearn" project is investigating so-called "category learning". This involves learning to group different stimuli into categories. It is already known that this form of learning requires the prefrontal cortex, which is located in the front of the brain, and which also plays a crucial role in working memory. New findings indicate that the visual cortex is also involved in this learning process. In order to investigate the flexibility of the different brain areas and thus draw conclusions about the learning process, humans, rhesus monkeys and computer models are trained to learn different tasks one after the other based on the same visual information. "This allows us to understand how we cope with the multitude of tasks that arise in the course of our lives and to decipher the neural mechanisms that enable our mental flexibility," says Dr. Schwiedrzik.
A special feature of this project is the combination of studies on humans and rhesus monkeys and the translation of these data into computer models. The Göttingen Campus offers excellent conditions for this combination with its close cooperation between a research-strong University Medical Center, the internationally unique Primate Center and high-performing computer science. Imaging techniques are used in human subjects to investigate which areas of the brain are involved in different learning tasks and how flexibly brain activity changes in the course of learning and during new tasks. However, detailed investigations into the activity of individual neurons are not possible in humans. This is where studies on rhesus monkeys, which have a brain structure very similar to that of humans, come in. The animals learn the same tasks as the human subjects, but here the activity of individual nerve cells is also measured using microelectrodes. "This is necessary not only to find out where learning processes take place in the brain, but also to understand which neuronal building blocks have to interlock to enable these learning processes," says Dr. Caspar Schwiedrzik.
The planned simulations with computer models serve to link the experimental data with different learning theories. To this end, the computer models are trained to replicate the behavior of the human subjects or the neuronal activity of the rhesus monkeys. The resulting artificial neuronal networks are then examined with regard to their structure and dynamics. This approach allows a large number of experiments to be carried out on the computer rather than in the laboratory.
Dr. Caspar Schwiedrzik, born in 1983, studied psychology with a focus on cognitive neuroscience and clinical neuropsychology at the University of Konstanz from 2003 to 2008 and completed his doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main in 2011. From 2012 to 2016, he conducted research at New York's Rockefeller University. Since January 2017, heads the "Neural Circuits and Cognition" research group at the European Neuroscience Institute (ENI), a cooperation between the University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the Max Planck Society, and since February 2019 also the junior research group "Perception and Plasticity" at the German Primate Center (DPZ) - Leibniz Institute for Primate Research.
About the ERC Consolidator Grants
The European Commission established the ERC in 2007 to support outstanding scientists with innovative research projects. The ERC Consolidator Grants support excellent scientists whose own independent research group is in the consolidation phase. The funding amount is approximately two million euros for a period of up to five years.