Martijn van den Heuvel awarded ERC Consolidator Grant
Computational neuroscientist Martijn van den Heuvel has been awarded a Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council (ERC). Over the next five years he will study connections in the brain and the role they play in how the brain functions.
Martijn van den Heuvel’s ERC research will focus on the ‘threads in our heads’: white-matter connectivity and other connections in the brain. “All kinds of connectivity takes place in the brain. Using MRI techniques, we can map these connections one by one, and record their activity to see how they form networks: a kind of ‘road map’ of the brain. Our aim is to study how all these connections come together to make the brain function optimally, for example in arithmetical and linguistic processing. But also to look at how these networks might play a role in disrupting the brain’s functions.”
We already know that these ‘road maps’ can differ significantly from one individual to the next. “By studying people’s road maps in detail, we want to see where the vulnerabilities in the brain might lie. Are the highways or the smaller back roads more sensitive to change? The analysis techniques for studying and comparing these maps are still in their infancy. With this ERC grant, our aim will be to refine and simplify those techniques.”
Studies already carried out by Van den Heuvel’s team appear to point to a correlation between vulnerabilities in brain connections and several types of disruption. “It has yet to be proven, but that’s what we suspect. There appear to be all kinds of bottlenecks in the road network – compare them to a narrow bridge or a busy crossroads – that can affect brain function in all sorts of different ways and are associated with a range of disruptions. It’s time we started mapping and investigating those little bridges and crossings.”
One key question Van den Heuvel wants to explore is whether there is a connection with genetics. “Increasingly, we are learning from spectacular genetic research that various high-risk genes are involved in brain disorders. So someone could turn out to be ‘predisposed’ towards conditions such as Alzheimer’s or insomnia.”
What Van den Heuvel wants to know is how these genetic vulnerabilities relate to connectivity vulnerabilities. “Are certain connections, certain roads, less robust or more sensitive to disruption? And does this go hand in hand with genetic vulnerabilities?”
Martijn van den Heuvel is a professor in the field of Computational Neuroscience. On 1 January 2020 he was appointed as a University Research Chair professor at VU Amsterdam, where he works at the Faculty of Science’s Center for Neurogenomics and Cognitive Research (CNCR). He combines this with a position in the Department of Child Psychiatry at Amsterdam UMC. His background is in the field of Artificial Intelligence, and his current research focuses on bridging the gaps between psychology, mathematics and biology.