Collective Brainpower – What about our Brains?
“Interdisciplinary is the keyword of my research. I really enjoy working with collaborators and young researchers from different disciplines. We come from different perspectives of understanding, but we work closely until we are on the same page,” said Professor Zhou Changsong from the Department of Physics of HKBU, a passionate researcher who is one of the ten awardees of Research Grants Council (RGC) Senior Research Fellow Scheme (SRFS) 2023/24.
Professor Zhou’s SRFS awarded project aligns with one of HKBU’s strategic research directions of “interdisciplinary”, and he appreciated the University’s openness and comprehensive support which enabled the development of his active international network of interdisciplinary research collaboration. His project is entitled “Stiffness in Nonlinear Brain Connectome: Identifying Effective Strategies for Modulating Neurocognition and Treating Neuropsychiatric Disorders”, a brain study involving close collaborations among physical scientists, psychologists, mathematicians and experts in computer science and machine learning.
The Interdisciplinary SRFS Awarded Project
Our brains are made up of billions of tiny cells called neurons. They form complex neural networks and communicate with each other by electrical signals to help us think, feel and act. Abnormality or imbalances in these signals will result in certain medical conditions, such as depression and dementia (a decline in mental ability), and that is why neuromodulation, the approach to influence and regulate those electrical signals, is more than significant.
Professor Zhou’s project aims to integrate his knowledge, as a physical scientist, of nonlinear brain networks to address important and impactful challenges on neuromodulation. His research team aims to develop a completely new theoretical framework to identify brain network targets and a computational template with experimental validation and build a pipeline and a toolbox for neuromodulation using existing technologies, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
The framework developed in this project can be translated into applications for the prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of neuropsychiatric disorders, such as using TMS to treat depression. It can also serve as a research tool to provide opportunities for personalised medicine and enhance our understanding of the brain and its disorders. Through this project, Professor Zhou will apply and validate their strategies to enhance memory ability in the elderly population using the central research facilities in the newly established HKBU Life Science Imaging Centre, including Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and TMS.
Trained as a physicist who is fascinated by the complex living system, Professor Zhou is enthusiastic about research projects that can contribute to human mental health improvements. Leveraging his international research group comprising his collaborators from Germany, Sydney, the US, the UK, mainland China, as well as those from Hong Kong institutions, and exchange students from all over the world, Professor Zhou is working out his research with experts in a range of disciplines like physics, computer science, psychology, biomedical engineering and mathematics.
“The most challenging part is that everyone understands the brain system from different angles. We need to understand the problem of brain researchers, and help others understand the concept and approaches from our perspective of complex systems before we can solve the problem together,” said Professor Zhou, who learned to integrate his physical science methods with the understanding of the psychologists in cognitive science and neuroscience. The apparently meaningless “noisy brain activity” to psychologists is actually the crucial element to form human cognition through interacting neural network to physical scientists. He stressed the importance of communication and learning from one another to achieve mutual understanding and agreement to work things out.
But this was only one of the challenges met by Professor Zhou’s team. There were times when none of his group members had the expertise or skillsets required to solve the challenges. “To overcome challenges, my team and I constantly learn new knowledge and skillsets. We also recruit and support outstanding young researchers of diverse backgrounds from different parts of the world, and put them into small groups to work complementarily on different parts of the project. This is how we enhance our collaboration network and problem-solving skills,” said Professor Zhou.
Brainstorming the Future
Professor Zhou aspires to develop this project into a flagship programme of HKBU. In the long term, he hopes the project outcomes could lead to further high-impact projects. “With our expertise in data analysis and modelling of complex brain networks, I believe we can contribute to many more projects, and I look forward to more and closer collaborations with application-oriented researchers and engineers to apply the methods and software on more innovative clinical practices,” said Professor Zhou, who is actively recruiting new members from the fields of computer science, machine learning, neuroscience and neuropsychiatry who are motivated and are ready to explore new ideas and frontiers like brain-inspired AI.
About the Researcher
Professor Zhou Changsong is Professor and Head of the Department of Physics, Director of the Centre for Nonlinear Studies and Deputy Director of the Institute of Computational and Theoretical Studies, and Director of the Life Science Imaging Centre of HKBU. He obtained his PhD degree at Nankai University and served as Postdoctoral Fellow at National University of Singapore (1997-1999), Visiting Research Scholar at HKBU (1999-2000) and Humboldt Research Fellow and Research Scientist at University of Potsdam, Germany (2000-2007). He joined HKBU as Assistant Professor in 2007 and received HKBU President’s Award for Outstanding Young Researcher 2011 and President’s Award for Outstanding Performance in Scholarly Work 2021. He has published over 160 research papers in interdisciplinary journals such as Nature Communications, PNAS, Physical Review Letters, National Science Review, Journal of Neuroscience, NeuroImage, Cerebral Cortex and PLoS Computational Biology. He currently serves as Academic Editors of Scientific Reports, PLoS One and Cognitive Neurodynamics.