Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 23, 1995

Study on Human Perception Funded 

By Emil Venere

     The Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute has received a $1.3
million grant to establish three new laboratories dedicated to
studying how the human brain perceives.
     The three-year grant, from the Lucille P. Markey Charitable
Trust, will be used primarily to hire three scientists to head
the laboratories, which will enhance ongoing research dealing
with the neural mechanisms involved in perception, said Guy M.
McKhann, director of the institute.
     The research focuses on a "systems approach" to studying
human perception.
     To understand how the visual system works, for example,
scientists must learn how numerous brain components work together
to produce a complete visual image. Mind/Brain scientists are
currently investigating how the human brain encodes and records
sensory information, easily accomplishing complex "pattern
recognition" tasks that even the most advanced computers can't
come close to matching, said Kenneth Johnson, scientific director
of the institute. Before the brain stores visual information
about an object, the image from the retina is changed into an
abstract representation of itself so that the brain can recognize
a wide range of different versions of the object. The human brain
immediately recognizes a letter A, for example, even if it's a
different size or shape than any letter A seen before.
     The complexity of this task is obvious to computer
scientists, who have tried in vain to create an automated mail
system that might simply read the addresses on envelopes. Even
the most powerful computers are unable to cope with the vast
array of shapes and sizes of letters and numbers produced by the
endless variety of handwriting styles.
     "So the first big question is, how does the brain recode
this information as it flows into the central nervous system?"
said Dr. Johnson, a professor of neurophysiology and biomedical
engineering. "Somehow the information is recoded to a completely
different form. And that's the big question that we are after in
this laboratory."
     Similar transformations are involved with the senses of
hearing and touch.
     The grant was one of 14 announced Jan. 10 by the Markey
trust, based in Miami. They will be the last research grants
issued by the trust, which has awarded $474 million to research
institutions since it was established in 1983. The foundation has
issued $12.8 million in grants to Hopkins, including the most
recent grant.
     The Mind/Brain Institute is a research organization for
interdisciplinary research in the neurosciences, cognitive
psychology and computational neurobiology. It combines the
resources of experts at the Homewood campus and the Medical

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