Read Montague

By James Duncan Davidson


During the TEDGlobal 2012 conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, Read Montague introduced an idea worth spreading: that state-of-the-art computational approaches can enhance the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. Now, Montague is set to take the stage again, this time at the renowned Dorcas Cummings Memorial Lecture at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

VTCRI researcher to deliver internationally renowned Dorcas Cummings Memorial Lecture

Watch Read Montague's June 2, 2018 interview with Rebecca Lesham of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

“Neurobiologists have lots of experimental models — worms, rodents, fruit flies …”

It is 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Read Montague, a professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and in the Department of Physics at Virginia Tech, is speaking to a TEDGlobal audience about how the marriage of brain imaging and computation allows scientists to safely eavesdrop on healthy brain activity.

“Now we have human beings,” he said. “Without needles or anything invasive, we can record activity in the people’s brains as they do cognitive tasks. We can use human beings to study and model the software in the human brain, something that has never been possible.”

Lots has happened with Montague and his research program since that TED talk, which has collected more than 713,000 views on the TED website. In the past year alone, he launched the first scientific journal solely dedicated to Computational Psychiatry, published a study that was a pioneering foray into the frontier of “neurolaw,” and made an unprecedented discovery about the complex dance between serotonin and dopamine during human decision-making.

The next step is to continue the conversation with the curious public.

Montague will become the 41st person to present the annual Dorcas Cummings Memorial Lecture on June 2, 2018 at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Symposium on Quantitative Biology, Brains and Behavior: Order and Disorder in the Nervous System.

“Dr. Montague is among a select group of the world’s leading neuroscientists who hail from such leading institutions as Columbia, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UC Berkley, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute invited to speak at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Symposium on Quantitative Biology, Brains and Behavior: Order and Disorder in the Nervous System,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the VTCRI and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health science and technology. “To have one of our biomedical scientists selected as a speaker in the symposium and to deliver the capstone keynote public address at this event is a point of pride for the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the entire Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Six Nobel Prize laureates have previously given the Dorcas Cummings Memorial Lecture, including Francis Crick, who was one of three winners of the prize in physiology or medicine for the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Other notables include Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health; Rene Dubos, the Pulitzer Prizing-winning microbiologist who coined the phrase, “Think Globally, Act Locally,” and Robert Ballard, the deep-sea explorer who found the wreckage of the HMS Titanic.

“The Cold Spring Harbor Symposia are old and venerated. It’s quite an honor to deliver the Dorcas Cummings Memorial Lecture, which is for the general public,” said Montague, who is also the director of the VTCRI Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the VTCRI Computational Psychiatry Unit.

Montague will focus on biological events that underlie cognition and the unifying idea of computation that ties the two domains together.

Montague’s lab has invented and employs brain imaging and computational methods — basically giant computer simulations — to strip away and simplify the complexity of human interaction and study the underlying biology of decision-making.

An offshoot of this work has been the creation of the journal Computational Psychiatry, which Montague edits with Peter Dayan, former director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London. The journal provides a home for theoretical, computational and statistical approaches to understand mental dysfunction and healthy mental function.

In recent months, Montague has also made inroads in the emerging field of “neurolaw,” which connects neuroscience to legal rules and standards.

In a study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Montague led researchers who discovered brain imaging can determine whether someone is acting in a state of knowledge about a crime — which brings stiffer penalties — or a state of recklessness, which even in capital crimes such as homicide, calls for less severe sentences.

In the May issue of Neuropsychopharmacology, Montague led a study in collaboration with colleagues at the Wake Forest School of Medicine and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine describing the fluctuations of dopamine and serotonin in awake humans during decision-making, suggesting a role for serotonin in navigating bad outcomes.

The Dorcas Cummings Memorial Lecture was established in 1978 to honor Cummings, who was a member of the Long Island Biological Association for more than 20 years. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Symposium on Quantitative Biology, Brains and Behavior begins today and will continue through June 4.