BrainStorm Neuroscience Pitch Competition Invests in Early-Career Researchers

October 18, 2019

Supporters of the Mind Science Foundation enjoyed a night of science and magic at its second annual BrainStorm Neuroscience Pitch Competition. The October 15th event featured three teams of brilliant young researchers pitching innovative brain research projects in competition for their share of a $60,000 pot, while world-renowned illusionist Mark Mitton emceed the evening and challenged the audience’s views of perception versus reality. The winners weren’t ‘magically’ chosen – audience members cast their votes to decide who took home top prize of $30,000.

The purpose of the Foundation’s research funding program is to improve health and well-being in humankind, through scientific advances in the study of consciousness. This year, finalists’ work can: provide a deeper understanding of the brain’s role in providing resilience in children raised in poverty; use virtual reality as a treatment for anxiety disorders; and “hack” brain systems using mindfulness meditation to strengthen personal traits of self-control and autonomy:

The winning pitch team of researchers Laurie Cutting, Stephanie Del Tufo, and Tin Nguyen from Vanderbilt University want to know what creates resiliency in children raised in poverty. Children from poverty have less access to healthcare and nutrition, as well as limited academic support. These experiences often result in poor classroom performance, and in the most extreme cases, academic failure. Yet, despite living in poverty, some children manage to thrive and excel in school. These children are thought to have resilience, and for the purposes of this study, by demonstrating positive academic outcomes despite living in poverty. Graduate student Tin Nguyen’s pitch sought to provide a deeper understanding of the relationships between resilience, brain structure, and enriching home reading environments in children subject to adversity or poverty. Understanding what makes children resilient can be a first step towards mitigating the negative impacts of childhood poverty. 

The runners up each received a grant of $15,000:

  • The research team of Hakwan Lau and Vincent Taschereau-Dumouchel from University of California Los Angeles look to determine if virtual reality can be used as a treatment for anxiety disorders like OCD. Early career researcher Vincent Taschereau-Dumouchel’s pitch addressed an important and unresolved question – the nature of obsessive-compulsive symptoms – that is of wide general importance clinically and wide general interest intellectually. This study lays the groundwork for a novel therapeutic method for treating anxiety disorders by subconsciously rewarding desired brain activity without requiring exposure to a feared stimulus, as in current exposure-based therapies. This “proof of concept” intervention uses virtual reality and neurofeedback to “train” the brains of study participants.
  • The research team of Justin Hulbert and Michael Greenberg from Bard College wants to know if it is possible to “hack” your brain using mindfulness meditation to strengthen self-control and autonomy. One of the most clinically promising interventions for mental health disorders being researched today is mindfulness meditation. Despite evidence for its effectiveness and its popularity, less is known about why it works. Undergraduate student Michael Greenberg’s pitch aimed to fill that gap with a study proposing that the focus on breathing in a certain way in mindfulness meditation naturally entrains the heart in such a way as to promote greater self-control and autonomy by enhancing connectivity in the brain. The research design has the advantage of easily used and highly accessible internet-based delivery of the mindfulness intervention.

The Mind Science Foundation has always sought to leverage its resources to pursue what its founder, legendary oilman and philanthropist Tom Slick called, the “vast potential of the human mind,” using the scientific method. The BrainStorm Competition is a direct result of the Foundation reaffirming its commitment to focus its science funding on early‐career researchers teamed with senior primary investigators in powerful labs to work on pilot studies that will help them obtain grants for further research, with the addition of a strategic goal to incentivize the building of skills in translating complex neuroscience for a general audience.

In 2018, audience votes awarded the top prize of $30,000 to University of Cambridge doctoral candidate, Subbu Sankarasubramanian, for her project investigating the development of a treatment to provide control over traumatic memories. “Our ‘seed’ investment is already providing Subbu opportunities for additional project funding and career growth,” said Meriam Good, Mind Science Foundation Director.

Mind Science Foundation is grateful for The Brown Foundation and William Knox Holt Foundation as Silver Sponsors, and The Smothers Foundation and Muriel Siebert Foundation as Bronze Sponsors. Additional underwriting was provided by Joan Cheever and Dennis Quinn, Cina Forgason, Frost Bank, Helen K. Groves, Gil Robinson, and Robert and Joan Carabin.

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