Scientific journey from ocean waves to brain waves yields BRAIN grant

From a series on researchers and innovators at Boston Children’s Hospital

For a researcher who started her career studying sound waves in the ocean, winning a BRAIN Early Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) grant from the National Science Foundation is a pretty impressive accomplishment. The grant, part of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to advance transformative research on the brain, affirms Caterina Stamoulis’s shift of focus from the depths of the sea to the depths of the brain. She’s not alone: the neuroscience field is attracting scientists from the physical sciences who bring a fresh perspective to the analysis of brain signals.

Today, Stamoulis, who holds a PhD in underwater acoustics from MIT, holds faculty appointments in radiology and neurology and at Boston Children’s.

What are the goals of your BRAIN project?

We aim to characterize age-related changes in the brain’s rhythmic activity (neural oscillations) during the first three years of life. The brain changes at a remarkable pace during this period. It is also a period when several neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), manifest themselves.

To understand how these disorders affect brain activity and consequently cognitive function, we first need to better understand how fundamental aspects of brain activity, such as neural oscillations, change with age in the typically developing brain. To characterize the trajectories of these oscillations, we will use novel computational tools and large volumes of human electrophysiological (EEG) data.

What gave you the idea to study brain oscillations?

My collaborator in this project, Charles Nelson, PhD, research director of Boston Children’s Developmental Medicine Division, collects large volumes of human EEG data as part of his lab’s studies on various neurodevelopmental disorders as well as typical brain development. These datasets, which track subjects over time, offer a truly unique opportunity to study and robustly characterize fundamental aspects of brain activity in typically developing infants. This project brings together our respective strengths, my expertise in computational neuroscience, Chuck’s expertise in developmental neuroscience, and a large dataset with the goal to solve a very exciting problem.

If you weren’t doing neuroscience what would your dream job be?

My PhD is in underwater acoustics, so for a long time, I studied acoustic wave propagation in the ocean. It is a scientifically challenging field that I still miss. If I had not switched careers, I would probably still be doing research in ocean acoustics.

Interestingly, there are many similarities between the scientific challenges in that field and those of brain research, and some of the computational tools are similar as well. For example, localizing sources of neural activity in the brain is not very different from localizing sound sources in the ocean. The computational tools used to solve these localization problems are similar.

So, my current work is often inspired by ocean acoustics and in general the physical sciences.

How did you switch from ocean waves to brain waves?

A few years ago neuroscience became an attractive field to scientists from mathematics and the physical sciences. The field is relatively new and many difficult and exciting problems have not yet been solved. Teams of investigators with distinct expertise are needed to solve these problems. This gives scientists from other disciplines an opportunity to use their background to make novel contributions to neuroscience.

It was not a straightforward transition for me. My background was in mathematics and the physical sciences and my knowledge of biology was limited. But I was willing to be retrained. Emilio Bizzi, MD, PhD, at the McGovern Institute for Brain research at MIT was willing to accept me in his laboratory despite my limited knowledge of the field. That position allowed me to get retrained in neuroscience.

Which innovator or scientist (current or historic) would you most like to have dinner with?

Richard Feynman, the 1965 Nobel laureate in Physics. He was a remarkable physicist and apparently a very funny person. He would have been a fascinating dinner companion. I greatly admire his work and intellect.

What innovation could you not live without? 

My cell phone. I lose it quite often and have discovered that there are practically no payphones left in Boston.

What makes you smile?

My dog Daisy. She is mischievous, often a clown, very smart and unconditionally loving. She knows how to get what she wants with just a tail wag. I think that’s remarkable.