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The Mind Science nonprofit organization has selected three research teams for its 2021 neuroscience pitch competition. 

Launched in 2018, the BrainStorm neuroscience pitch competition funds the promising research of early-career neuroscientists teamed with senior primary investigators. Supporting their pilot studies can help young researchers demonstrate a proof of concept when applying for grants that can support further investigation.

The finalists also benefit from Mind Science’s mentoring as they develop crucial skills for communicating complex neuroscience effectively to the public, so important as a counterbalance to anti-science sentiment. The researchers recorded short videos about their groundbreaking neuroscience ideas so that Mind Science board members and an audience of Mind Science supporters can view them and cast their votes.

The first prize is a $30,000 Tom Slick Research Award in Consciousness, with the two runners-up each receiving a $15,000 award. This year’s pitch competition will be virtual, complete with online voting for the top prize.

Vote here by Oct. 18 for the neuroscientist you think is working on the most promising research after viewing their video pitches. The 2021 finalists are:

  • Vera Ludwig, PhD, University of Pennsylvania 
  • Zulkayda Mamat, University of Cambridge 
  • Ben Rein, PhD, Stanford University 

After the votes are tallied, the winner will be announced on Oct. 21.

Ludwig intends to study how meditating with a partner can increase feelings of well-being and social connection in young adults, as loneliness is a recognized risk factor for depression and other illnesses. Ludwig explores how meditation with a partner reduces loneliness, which is especially prevalent given our pandemic-induced physical distancing. 

“Typical mindfulness meditation is a solitary practice,” Ludwig said. “Feeling close to others is crucial to our well-being and our health. … Social synchrony matters.” The benefits of solo meditation are well documented, yet little is known about the effectiveness of contemplative dyad meditation or paired meditative practice on brain activity.

Mamat plans to pioneer the brain mapping of how the brain suppresses negative memories. Understanding how selective forgetting works can help people heal from the intrusive memories of trauma. 

Forgetting is not the same as a failure to remember, Mamat said in her video pitch. The graduate student points out there are different mechanisms driving our ability to forget, as observed in people with “impaired forgetting” suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some people also are more skilled than others in suppressing specific recollections. Mamat plans to use precision brain mapping to create the brain network of selective forgetting.

“Just like we have ‘supertasters’ who excel at tasting because they possess many more taste buds, we plan to study those who are the ‘superforgetters’ of unpleasant memories,” Mamat said.

Rein seeks to learn how early experiences shape the social development of our brains. This issue concerns millions of families with young schoolchildren staying home to learn virtually during the pandemic, rather than interacting than with their peers in the classroom and on the playground.

“Several parts of the brain are known to be involved in social function,” Rein said in his video pitch. “We don’t understand exactly how engaging in these social interactions might facilitate neural development.”

The synapses or connections between brain cells in the pre-frontal cortex where social skills develop get stronger with repetition. Rein explains how mice that are isolated in early life tend to have poor social skills once they mature. 

The postdoctoral fellow aims to show exactly how social experiences are crucial for proper brain development. “These connections appear to be very important for social function,” Rein said.

A team of neuroscientists from the University of Texas at San Antonio won the top 2020 BrainStorm prize for research on how our preferences for rewards change the longer we wait. Graduate student Merridee Lefner and UTSA assistant professor in biology Matthew Wanat are researching which brain region predominantly controls our changes in preference.

“I believe the emphasis Mind Science places on public dissemination of scientific knowledge is invaluable,” Lefner said. “I have really enjoyed participating in BrainStorm with Mind Science because they have helped me figure out how to better communicate my research to the lay public.”

Oilman and philanthropist Tom Slick founded Mind Science in 1958 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding scientific research and education that explores what Slick called the “vast potential of the human mind.”

“The more we can support early-career neuroscientists, the more impact we have as a nonprofit,” said Mind Science Director Meriam Good. “It’s more important than ever to invest in the young scientists exploring the frontiers of our consciousness.”

To learn more about Mind Science or to make a donation, click here. To cast your vote for the BrainStorm Neuroscience Pitch Competition, click here.

Mind Science is a 501.c.3 private operating foundation, established in 1958 by oilman and philanthropist Tom Slick (1916-1962), with a mission to fund scientific research and provide education about the...