Learning to DANNCE

April 19, 2021

By Jonathan McCall, MS, and Rabail Baig, MA

A group of neuroscientists and machine learning experts are developing new ways to analyze animal movement and behavior to gain insights into the inner workings of the nervous system.

It’s no secret that you can guess what an animal is thinking or feeling based on the way it moves. The dog that wags its tail is happy to see you; bared teeth and bristling fur in the same animal convey something quite different.

But what if we could go far beyond these relatively obvious interpretations of animal behavior? What if we could learn to decode these eloquent movements and translate them into a detailed understanding of the inner workings of an animal’s brain and body? Could we then learn to apply these techniques to the human brain, unlocking new insights into states of health and disease?

These questions are at the heart of a study undertaken by a team of researchers from Duke University, Harvard, MIT, Rockefeller University, and Columbia University. Combining expertise from the disciplines of neurobiology and artificial intelligence, they developed a system that captures detailed, multiple-view video of animals in their natural environment, and then uses data from those video images to build a detailed model of how the animal moves. This allows scientists to use movement and behavior as a window into brain function.

“There has been this huge technological gap that's been hampering our ability to understand the brain in health and disease,” says Timothy Dunn, PhD, an assistant professor with the Duke University Department of Neurosurgery, a researcher with Duke AI Health, and a member of the study team. Dunn, who specializes in the application of machine learning in neuroscience, notes that while there has been significant progress in directly measuring and manipulating brain activity, methods that allow scientists to quantify and measure the output of that activity– in this case, movement and behavior—have lagged behind. It was this gap that Dunn and his team were attempting to fill.

One major driver for the group’s efforts was the desire to use analysis of animal behavior to shed light on Parkinson disease, autism, and other disorders where highly detailed characterization of movement might reveal additional information about the disease and how it manifests—and possibly suggest new avenues for therapeutic intervention...Read more at Duke AI Health