Eye and brain research gets $4 million

The National Institutes of Health has renewed funding for a research group at the University of Rochester that is examining how the brain works during everyday tasks as simple as arranging blocks and as complicated as driving.

The University's National Resource Laboratory for the Study of Brain and Behavior, which brings together computer scientists, cognitive scientists, visual scientists, neurologists, and ophthalmologists, will receive $4 million over the next five years for its studies of behavior and neural function in complex settings. The laboratory's research combines tools that mimic real-world sensations, such as virtual reality driving simulators and sleds that tilt and rotate test subjects, with sensory trackers that measure eye, head, and finger movements.

The research is based on the experimental finding that motor behaviors, especially eye movements, can serve as a window on how the brain functions. Since the working memory available during tasks is limited, our eyes rapidly dart around the visual environment, turning it into a form of external memory that we repeatedly draw upon to complete a task. Researchers use eye trackers to further examine how we access this "memory" and to gain valuable insights into how our brains perform tasks.

"Even the simplest task, such as picking up a teacup, involves perceiving, thinking, planning, and acting," says laboratory director Dana Ballard, a professor of computer science and brain and cognitive science. "Researchers in many fields have proposed theories on how humans can perform such actions, but until recently many of these ideas have remained untested. We've provided some of the first clues about what happens when a real person does a real task in a naturalistic environment."

The laboratory has made several significant findings in its three years, including the discovery that humans organize the details of a task to minimize the amount of short-term memory required at any instant. Future laboratory work with virtual reality systems is expected to offer an unprecedented understanding of how we gather and remember information in natural settings--one of the key questions that cognitive science and neuroscience seek to answer.

With Ballard, the other principal investigators involved in the research are Charles Duffy, assistant professor of neurology, neurobiology and anatomy, and ophthalmology; Mary Hayhoe, professor of visual science; Gary Paige, associate professor of neurology, physiology, otolaryngology, and ophthalmology; and Marc Schieber, associate professor of neurology, neurobiology and anatomy, brain and cognitive science, and visual science.

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Last updated 11-7-1997