Event Recap: BME Seminar - Aaron Batista, University of Pittsburgh

Oct 26 2021 | By Abigail Ayers

The latest talk in the BME Seminar Series led by Dr. Aaron Batista on Friday, October 22 demonstrated the synergistic value of integrating clinical and basic research for the advancement of neurophysiology. Despite his use of the rhesus macaque as a brain model to study human behavior, there is no monkey business when it comes to Batista’s research; his work is transforming our understanding of the brain’s functions and has the capability to change lives.

Batista is a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. His research examines the neural population mechanisms of sensory-motor coordination, with implications for clinical neural prosthetics. The Batista lab works at the intersection of clinic and laboratory, as they hope to use their research findings to directly improve BCIs in paralysis patients. Batista’s curiosity about why people do what they do spurs his research. A chess player’s deliberation, a dancer’s expertise, or an artist’s improvisation: all of these involve complex brain function when emotions converge with actions. He is interested in expanding the lens of sensory motor neuroscience to accommodate the inner life of humans.

In his talk titled “Motivation and Memory in Motor Cortex”, Batista discussed how Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) can be used to better understand the function of the primary motor cortex (M1). The Batista lab uses implanted multielectrode arrays to investigate what BCI systems can teach us about the brain and how they can be improved. A geometrical perspective of signals from the array has become a powerful tool used for representing neural activity; the Batista lab’s work revealed the existence of an intrinsic manifold, which is a low dimensional subspace where neural activity patterns tend to stay. Batista and his team are still working to understand the intrinsic manifold, how it develops, and its role in the motor cortex, but they hypothesize that it could represent how other parts of the brain are choosing to access M1. Other work in the Batista lab revealed that neural engagement plays a role in learning, helping for some targets and hurting performance for others. Further, they investigated the interesting phenomenon that happens in both humans and monkeys, known as “choking”: when reward affects performance. In situations where the stakes are too high, reward signals interfere with volitional signals, which somehow leads to a breakdown in the behavioral complex. Finally, Batista described his work examining how motor memories are revealed in the motor cortex; his team found that learning something new results in a memory trace that changes consolidation of old memories. Batista’s ability to weave metaphors and personal anecdotes to explain intricate concepts in an accessible way resulted in a captivated and enthusiastic audience; his passion for his work was contagious, and it is exciting to imagine how this research might contribute to improved neural prosthetics and a new perspective on human behavior in general.

You can read more about the Batista lab’s research here. His engaging lecture was the latest of many in this semester’s seminar series hosted by the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University. If you are interested in attending in person or virtually, the weekly series takes place on Friday mornings at 11:00 AM Eastern and includes a variety of renowned academics from top universities to talk about their specific research and experience.

Learn more and register for the seminar series!