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Grad students win competition for decoding brain activity

Two graduate students, Ali Arslan GS and James Niemeyer GS, were named first- and second-place winners, respectively, of the Brown Institute for Brain Science’s inaugural brain computation competition March 20, according to a University press release.

The graduate students were able to determine whether participants were paying attention to a given activity without ever observing or interacting with them. Instead, the students mapped brain activity that indicated parts of the task on which the participants focused.

Arslan and Niemeyer measured electrical impulses in the participants’ brains and determined which impulses corresponded to attention for dozens of participants. In the process, they sifted through 18,000 data points of electrical signals.

Once the winners were named, faculty sponsors announced another neuroscience competition that will take place later this spring. The contestants will attempt to interpret data from surgery patients’ implants as the patients watch TV shows. They may be asked to predict patients’ reactions to the show from measures of their brain activity alone, according to the press release.


Antibiotic-resistant bacteria on the rise

Instances of urinary tract infections caused by bacteria that don’t respond to commonly prescribed antibiotics are increasing, according to a report from a team that included University researchers, published online in the journal Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Control. The report was highlighted in a Lifespan press release March 25.

Despite the bacteria’s unresponsiveness to some antibiotics doctors generally prescribe, the researchers discovered “that many of these bacteria causing urinary tract infections were susceptible to an older, inexpensive antibiotic, nitrofurantoin,” said Leonard Mermel, professor of medicine and a co-author of the study, in the press release.

“Recognizing the strains that are resistant to common antibiotics is critical to providing proper treatment and better outcomes,” Mermel said in the release.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria may be increasing, because humans and farm animals are prescribed antibiotics at a higher rate than ever to treat infection, Mermel said in the release, adding that finding new ways to stop these bacteria from causing harm to patients is critical.

“It’s imperative that we determine why these bacteria are resistant to some antibiotics so that we can develop new ones to combat dangerous, and possibly fatal, infections,” said Steve Kassakian, a teaching fellow in medicine who co-authored the study, in the release.

For this study, the researchers examined data from patients infected with bacteria resistant to common antibiotics over the course of five years. The number of these infections has increased from 2006 to 2011, according to their analysis.


Two professors receive half-million award for research

The National Science Foundation honored two University professors with CAREER Awards, the most prestigious awards junior faculty members can receive from the foundation, according to a University press release.

One of the recipients, Baylor Fox-Kemper, assistant professor of geological sciences, will use his $594,000 grant to continue developing mathematical and physical techniques to analyze the effects of small-scale changes in ocean currents. These can be used to analyze broader-scale phenomena within the ocean and to see the shifts’ effect on the ocean’s ability to regulate the global climate.

Such methods can help predict future climate change, as current models fail to adequately incorporate modest changes in ocean flow.

In addition to facilitating his research, the grant will allow Fox-Kemper to present his work throughout Rhode Island in collaboration with the Narragansett Bay conservation group Save the Bay.

Fox-Kemper, who recently moved to the state, said he is “eager to meet other people working to ensure ocean sustainability and conservation and to meet students and citizens across Rhode Island who want to know more about climate and oceans,” in the release.

The other recipient, Thomas Serre, assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, plans to investigate human and primate vision. He received $500,000 from the NSF.

Serre will explore how humans perceive objects in extremely short periods of time. In previous experiments, Serre has determined that many participants can accurately answer questions about images they have seen for only 150 milliseconds..

Serre now plans to build on his experiments and piece together an algorithm to model brain activity during this initial stage of vision. Such algorithms could be important in self-driving cars and other technology that employs visual techniques, according to the press release.


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