At the end of September, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recognized neuroscience research programs at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh for their support of the federal BRAIN Initiative. Much of what is currently being done by both universities began 20 years ago when the Richard King Mellon Foundation gave a gift of $12 million to launch a collaborative research center focused on neuroscience. The result—the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC)—will celebrate its 20th anniversary October 17-18 with a series of events held on both universities’ Pittsburgh campuses.

The CNBC integrates Pitt’s strengths in bioengineering, math, psychology, and basic and clinical neuroscience with Carnegie Mellon’s strengths in psychology, computer science, biological sciences, and statistics to investigate the neural mechanisms that give rise to human cognitive abilities. The center also trains the next generation of neuroscientists through an interdisciplinary graduate and postdoctoral training program and fosters close collaborations between faculty.

“To have two universities across the street from each other and to have them decide to collaborate rather than compete is very special,” says Peter L. Strick, Pitt co-director of the CNBC, distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology at Pitt, in a release. “The CNBC has an open architecture that allows interactions between scientists and colleagues—regardless of their home institution. Students can seamlessly move between Pitt and CMU labs and draw on the expertise of faculty at both institutions. This cross-disciplinary and cross-university atmosphere has allowed the CNBC—and therefore CMU and Pitt—to recruit and keep scientists and researchers and attract the brightest students.”

CNBC research has made an impact across the spectrum of neuroscience, from foundational basic scientific research aimed at understanding how individual neurons behave to studies that have led to the discovery of important cognitive consequences of brain injury, and diseases and disorders like Alzheimer’s and autism. Examples provided in a press release include:

  • Carnegie Mellon neuroscientist Alison Barth invented the fos-GFP mouse, a transgenic mouse model that allows researchers to visualize, identify, and study individual neurons as they are activated in a living animal. These mice, described in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2004, were the first fluorescent reporters of neural activity to be developed and disseminated, and remain widely used by neuroscientists today. The model has been licensed for use by every major pharmaceutical company in the United States and by scientists worldwide to study a variety of topics including sleep, addiction, learning, memory, and spinal cord injuries.
  • CNBC researchers at Pitt—Andy Schwartz, Mike Boninger, and Elizabeth Tyler-Kubera, with support from Rob Kass and Valerie Ventura at CMU—made a major breakthrough in the field of brain-computer interfaces. They used signals from the motor cortex of a quadriplegic woman to allow her to control a robotic arm and hand, and achieve one of her goals—to feed herself a chocolate bar after 11 years of nearly total paralysis.
  • In August 2014, CMU’s Byron Yu and Pitt’s Aaron Batista and Patrick Sadtler found for the first time that there are limitations on how adaptable the brain is during learning and that these restrictions are a key determinant for whether a new skill will be easy or difficult to learn. Understanding the ways in which the brain’s activity can be “flexed” during learning could eventually be used to develop better treatments for stroke and other brain injuries.

The CNBC will celebrate 20 years of neuroscience research and education excellence with a dinner, lectures, panel discussions, a poster session, and other special events. One such event is an art exhibit, Neurons and Other Memories/Work In and Around the Brain, which will be on display at CMU’s Miller Gallery October 10-26. The exhibit features the investigations, translations, and reflections of neural mechanisms by artists and neuroscientists. Curated by Patricia Maurudes, the work includes themes in neuroanatomy, perception, and memory.