Focus Area: Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience

More than one million people in the U.S. are diagnosed annually with a chronic brain disease or disorder. In addition to the medical costs of diagnosis and treatment, the costs of long-term care for these children and adults are dramatic. Scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute address these national problems by advancing and applying neuro-technologies in efforts to understand how the brain develops, learns, makes choices, responds to disease and injury, and remains healthy during normal aging. By taking a transdisciplinary approach to the mechanisms of neurobiology and human cognition, VTCRI scientists strive to increase the world’s knowledge of the brain and accelerate therapeutic interventions for diseases such as addiction, ALS, Alzheimer’s, autism spectrum disorder, brain cancer, cerebral palsy, dementia, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, post-traumatic stress disorder, spinal muscular atrophy, and traumatic brain injury.


Fundamental to solving the problem of addiction and other dysfunctional health behavior in both adolescents and adults is an understanding of how an individual continues to engage in a behavior despite recognizing that the behavior is both problematic and self-handicapping.

Under Dr. Warren Bickel’s direction, the Addiction Recovery Research Center of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute seeks to answer this and related questions by examining decision-making processes that support dysfunctional behavior. Center researchers also seek novel therapeutic means to repair those dysfunctional processes. Projects include the translational assessment of dysfunctional decision-making among the addicted and using that knowledge to explore diverse interventions to treat the dysfunction and improve the decision-making. A central tenet of this research is that there are trans-disease processes that undergird the expression of a range of self-handicapping decisions and that successful treatments will be applicable across those diseases.

To complement this research, in 2011, Dr. Bickel launched the National Quit & Recovery Registry, which seeks to understand how people succeed in overcoming addiction, whether to tobacco, alcohol, drugs, or harmful behaviors. The registry taps the insights and experiences of people who are in recovery from an addiction. Within a year of its launch, the registry proved so popular worldwide that Dr. Bickel renamed it the International Quit & Recovery Registry.


How is it that a depressed individual may value nothing at all, whereas an addict might value drug consumption at the expense of all else? What quantitative neurobehavioral measures of motivation, social function, and emotion may be useful for clinical assessment? And what makes some people especially vulnerable to peer pressure?

To address these and related questions, Dr. Pearl Chiu examines the neurobiology of human motivation and social decision-making. Her laboratory focuses on how such processes may be perturbed and rehabilitated in psychiatric populations.

The Chiu laboratory’s ongoing projects use multiple converging methods—such as behavior, self-report, clinical interviews, computational models, and functional magnetic resonance imaging—to identify neural circuitry involved in healthy decision-making; to specify how these pathways go awry in clinical populations marked by deficits in valuation and motivation, such as major depression, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and autism; and to develop biologically informed interventions to remediate these functional deficits.


Cerebral palsy, the most common childhood disability, affects 8,000 to 10,000 children in the United States each year. For many years, the disorder was considered incurable and permanent, with only limited opportunities to teach children to live with their disabilities. Research over the past several decades has led to a new understanding, however, of the brain’s capacity for functional reorganization through focused, intensive training that taps into neuroplasticity processes intrinsic to the nerve cells of the brain throughout life, even after brain disease or injury.

Dr. Stephanie DeLuca and Dr. Sharon Ramey have pioneered the use of a therapeutic intervention for children with cerebral palsy that was first developed for adult stroke patients. The therapy results in a dramatic functional recovery of the impaired side of the brain and a persistent recovery—for many months and even years after the therapy—of control of the impaired side of the body.

DeLuca and Ramey now conduct their work at the Neuromotor Research Clinic at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, where they—along with collaborators from the University of Virginia and Ohio State University—are launching a multisite randomized controlled clinical research trial to evaluate the most effective parameters for increasing brain function in children with cerebral palsy. The therapies they seek to perfect not only significantly reduce costs to society, but also enable the children to realize their full potential in life.


How do two people trust one another? How do individuals balance their own interests with the interests of others? How do people work together to enforce social norms, and when does this break down? Why are charitable instincts inhibited by the presence of others? And why is it more important for some people to be aggressive but lose, than be submissive and win?

Dr. Brooks King-Casas seeks to answer such questions in his quest to address two broad areas of inquiry: the neural basis of valuation and learning in social settings, and abnormalities of social valuation. His laboratory also uses methods of decision neuroscience, behavioral economics, and social psychology to seek insights into neural computations underlying normative social behavior. Dr. King-Casas believes that these approaches, when jointly brought to bear on complex social phenomena, provide tractable and clear answers about how humans make decisions about one another.

Dr. King-Casas further seeks insights into the computations underlying social abnormalities of psychopathology. Psychiatric illnesses, from autism spectrum disorders to antisocial personality disorder, include primary features that can be studied as pathological social decisions. Dr. King-Casas’s laboratory leverages its normative work in this area to investigate neural computations that give rise to aberrant social behavior.


If you can decode what the brain is sensing, doing, or thinking as you scan it using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), then you can have a powerful tool for adapting fMRI experiments in flight.

Research in Dr. Stephen LaConte’s laboratory is devoted to advanced neuroimaging acquisition and data analysis approaches aimed at basic scientific discovery and at understanding and rehabilitating neurological and psychiatric diseases.

A major focus of the laboratory is a real-time approach to fMRI that Dr. LaConte pioneered and has dubbed temporally adaptive brain state, or TABS. The inception of TABS arose from two major recent advances in neuroimaging: (1) the recognition that multivoxel patterns of fMRI data can be used to decode brain states, determining what a volunteer is “doing,” such as receiving sensory input, effecting motor output, or otherwise internally focusing on a prescribed task or thought; and (2) continued advances in magnetic resonance imaging systems and experimental sophistication with fMRI that have led to the emergence of real-time fMRI as a viable tool for biofeedback.

With the TABS approach, Dr. LaConte is able to use fMRI data not just to map the brain, but also to decode what the brain is doing mid-thought. By providing the brain with immediate feedback, he hopes to harness the brain’s own plasticity to help it heal. This real-time fMRI approach has an array of potential applications for treating neurological and psychiatric disorders.


The human brain is a vast computational device, one that uses sophisticated algorithms to perceive the world, make decisions, and take actions. The brain assigns values to its neural computations, passes them from one symbol to another, and updates them based on real experience and even simulated experience. As a result, it runs more efficiently than the most advanced computers in the world. Yet in some situations, the algorithms of the human brain can go awry and contribute to psychiatric illness.

Under the direction of Dr. Read Montague, scientists at the Computational Psychiatry Unit are unlocking the mysteries of the brain’s neural computations to understand decision-making not only in health but also in such psychiatric disorders as depression, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic addiction, and autism spectrum disorder.

To achieve these insights, Dr. Montague’s work centers broadly on human social cognition, decision-making, and willful choice with the goal of understanding the detailed underlying neurobiology of these functions in health and disease. His laboratory uses theoretical, computational, and experimental approaches to these issues, particularly functional neuroimaging, new biomarkers for mental disease, spectroscopy, real-time voltammetry, and computational simulations.


How early should early education start? Dr. Craig Ramey first posed that question forty years ago, and the research he pioneered then is still yielding critical answers.

Adults who participated in a high-quality early childhood education program in the 1970s are still benefiting from their early experiences in many ways, according to the findings of the Abecedarian Project, which Dr. Ramey founded and is now conducted by the FPG Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Under Dr. Ramey’s leadership, researchers have followed participants from early childhood through adolescence and young adulthood, generating a comprehensive and rare set of longitudinal data.

According to the latest study of adults at age 30, published earlier this year, Abecedarian Project participants had significantly more years of education than peers who were part of a control group. They were also four times more likely to have earned college degrees; 23 percent of participants graduated from a four-year college or university compared to only 6 percent of the control group.

Dr. Ramey continues his innovative research into the critical importance of a child’s early years in other ways. With his work so highly relevant to many national and international policy issues, he has extended his research into the rapid application of scientific findings that can prevent disabilities, promote children’s education and health outcomes, and improve family and community well-being.


The early years of a child’s development are critical, with an impact with reverberations throughout a lifetime.

Dr. Sharon Ramey’s research addresses three major areas of human development: (1) the contribution of early experience, starting even prior to conception and extending through the prenatal and early postnatal periods, to later health, social-emotional, and intellectual development (including the fields of behavioral teratology and early intervention research); (2) the development and testing of highly promising treatments for children with disabilities and at-risk conditions; and (3) methods for improving the provision of health, education, and social services and strengthening natural community supports to benefit children and families.

At the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Dr. Ramey is also leading the pediatric arm of the Roanoke Brain Study, a project aimed at understanding decisionmaking through the lifespan and its relationship to brain development, function, and disease. As part of that initiative, Dr. Ramey is playing a major role in establishing relationships with schools, community organizations, and families to better understand the factors that give rise to health brain development.