National Academy of Sciences honors neuroscientist David Freedman

Assoc. Prof. David Freedman, a neuroscientist who studies the neural underpinnings of learning, memory and decision-making, has been awarded the 2016 Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences.

The honor is given annually to two young investigators in recognition of unusual achievement in the research of human behavior and the processes that underlie it. The award is accompanied by a $75,000 prize.

“We have a long way to go to fully understand the brain mechanisms of higher cognitive functions,” Freedman said. “But it means a great deal to receive this acknowledgement from the National Academy for the progress we have made in understanding how the brain learns and recognizes visual categories.”

Freedman, chair of the Graduate Program in Computational Neuroscience, received the award for his innovative work investigating how the brain learns and recognizes visual categories. To effectively interact with their daily environment, human and primate brains are able to rapidly place objects they see into categories. By learning and storing information about visual categories, the brain can generate meaning—recognizing whether something is a car or a cow, a rock or a soccer ball, fruit or a tree, for example—and initiate an appropriate behavioral response.

Freedman’s creative experimental and computational models have allowed him to not only record from neurons in the brains of subjects as they perform visual categorization tasks, but to also study neurons before, during and after the process of learning.

His efforts have yielded numerous discoveries about how different areas of the brain work together to recognize, store and recall visual categories. He has shown that individual neurons in the parietal and frontal cortices are able to encode information about categories—the activity of single neurons can be used to predict a subject’s categorical decisions. In addition, he has found that these categorical judgements are controlled by populations of neurons that respond differently to visual images that belong in different categories, even if those images have a similar appearance.

Freedman’s research sheds light on how the brain carries out some of its largely mysterious higher functions, and provides a greater understanding of the neural mechanisms involved in memory, learning and visual recognition. His work may also someday help inform the study of diseases in which these functions are impaired, such as Alzheimer’s, stroke and schizophrenia.

A UChicago faculty member since 2008, Freedman is a member of the steering committee for the Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior, and a member of the Graduate Program in Neurobiology.

Freedman will be honored in a May 1 ceremony during the National Academy of Sciences’ 153rd annual meeting.