Tim Buschman, Associate Professor in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, has been awarded the prestigious Troland Research Award for “groundbreaking insights into the neural mechanisms of cognitive control.” Each year, the National Academy of Science presents this award to two early-career researchers who have made significant innovative contributions to experimental psychology. Prof. Buschman was recognized for his pioneering work studying the mechanisms by which the brain controls the focus of attention and the contents of memory to support goal-oriented behavior.
Cognitive control is the ability to adapt one’s behavior to the current situation. For example, if your cell phone rings when you are sitting at your desk then you are likely to answer it. However, if your cell phone rings in a crowded lecture hall you will quickly mute it. That is cognitive control at work. Depending on the context, the same stimulus (a ringing phone) leads to different responses. This ability is a core feature of intelligent and rational behavior.
“From a computational perspective, it’s a really fascinating problem,” Prof. Buschman says. While it is relatively easy to understand how a neural circuit may link a stimulus to a response, he says “it becomes more complicated when you have so many different ways in which your environment and context can influence your behavior. I’ve always been interested in understanding how that happens.”
To study the neural mechanisms of cognitive control, Prof. Buschman employs both experimental and computational approaches. He uses cutting-edge technology to monitor the neural activity of animals as they perform tasks that require them to choose different responses to the same stimuli in different contexts. He also utilizes neural network models to simulate computations performed by the brain. Recently, the Buschman Lab has published groundbreaking studies demonstrating how the brain can control the flow of information within and between its many regions. The work has led to novel insights into the neural and computational basis of animals’ ability to flexibly maintain multiple items in memory without interfering with the processing of new sensory stimuli.
Prof. Buschman’s work shows that large populations of neurons, spread across many brain areas, work together to achieve cognitive control. Importantly, the entire “cortical hierarchy” from frontal regions to posterior sensory regions are involved. This research has shown that the prefrontal cortex, long considered to be vital for executive function, is critical for channeling information flow between brain regions. But his work also suggests an important role for brain areas lower in the cortical hierarchy, which are normally associated with sensory processing. These regions play an important role in higher cognitive functions such as attention and working memory, or the ability to hold things “in mind.”
Moving forward, Prof. Buschman will continue to dissect the neural circuitry of cognitive control as well as pursue new lines of research applying his findings to better understand autism and schizophrenia. He also hopes his work with neural networks will inform the next generation of artificial intelligence models. “Neuroscience has a lot of potential to inform AI,” says Dr. Buschman. While headline-making models like GPT are very good at some tasks, “AI doesn’t have the ability to control itself. An understanding of task goals and contextual processing is part of what it’s missing.”
Dr. Buschman joins a long list of Princeton faculty and former students who have won the Troland Award. PNI Professors Yael Niv, Asif Ghazanfar, and Elizabeth Gould are all previous recipients, along with Psychology Professor Tom Griffiths. The award has also been given to former Princeton graduate students Earl Miller and Bob Desimone, who are now professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as Tirin Moore, professor at Stanford University.
Dr. Buschman says PNI, with its wide variety of researchers and collaborative environment, is the perfect place for fostering his lab’s work. “The kind of work that we do sits at the boundary between systems, circuits, and cognitive neuroscience,” he says. “So, it’s great having such wonderful colleagues on all sides to learn from and share ideas with.”
by Seth Akers-Campbell