Faculty Profile: Aron Barbey

Aron Barbey of the Cognitive Neuroscience group is off to an impressive start as a University of Illinois researcher.

Aron Barbey earned a Ph.D. in Psychology from Emory in 2007 and joined the University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute in the fall of 2011. In between, he made the most of his time as a postdoctoral research fellow with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by creating a research program that not only has given new insights into the functional organization of the prefrontal cortex, but also may eventually aid people suffering from neurological disorders and traumatic brain injury.

Barbey, a member of Beckman’s Cognitive Neuroscience group, is an Assistant Professor in the departments of Speech and Hearing Science and Psychology, as well as the Neuroscience Program. In his first academic year at the University, Barbey has published several papers, including one that mapped the neural architecture of human intelligence in one of the largest and most comprehensive analyses ever done.

“The study investigated a remarkable sample of 182 patients with focal brain injuries and identified a distinct neural system that is responsible for key competencies of general intelligence,” Barbey said. “The findings suggest that intelligence relies not on one brain region or even the brain as a whole, but involves specific brain structures working together in a coordinated fashion.”

The primary goal of our research is to understand the neural architecture of executive processes in healthy volunteers.
– Aron Barbey

Barbey directs the Decision Neuroscience Lab and is affiliated with the Center on Health, Aging, and Disability, and the NeuroEngineering IGERT Program. He has a research focus on the neural mechanisms of human thought, reasoning, and decision making, and their disturbance in psychiatric illness and traumatic brain injury. He said his research is focused around three main areas.

“The primary goal of our research is to understand the neural architecture of executive processes in healthy volunteers,” Barbey said. “We also seek to understand how these mechanisms are shaped by experience and altered through psychiatric illness and neurological disease.

“Finally, we attempt to translate these findings into clinical practice by investigating the beneficial effects of cognitive, fitness, and nutritional interventions on executive function and brain health.”

Barbey said he uses a number of neuroscience methods in his research, including structural and functional brain imaging and the experimental behavioral study of patients with brain injuries.

The paper on mapping of human intelligence received worldwide attention, but Barbey said it is just one example of how he is using neuroscience evidence to investigate the mechanisms that shape higher cognitive functions. Barbey also led a collaborative team that received a grant in the first round of funding from the newly-created Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory for a study on nutritional intake, cognitive function, and measures of brain aging.

“This project is a great example of the integrative, multidisciplinary, and highly collaborative approach to research at the Beckman Institute,” Barbey said. “Our project is a large-scale effort that includes collaborations between scientists here at the Beckman Institute and at Carle Foundation Hospital, where we will work with a team of physicians in the Carle Research Institute and Department of Neurology.”

Barbey said he is using the facilities at Beckman’s Biomedical Imaging Center on studies of several groups, including a study investigating the functional organization of the human prefrontal cortex in healthy volunteers, and a study involving veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury and psychiatric illness.

Barbey said using neuroscience to detect disease at a very early stage is something he is excited about.

“Can we identify neural, genetic, and nutritional biomarkers in individuals with a specific disease before their symptoms ever emerge and can we intervene so that the individual never has the worst version of that disorder at all?” he said. “We are hoping that neuroscience will allow us to identify biomarkers that can further inform the course of treatment, identifying which individuals will really benefit from which forms of therapy.

“How much we are learning about the neural, genetic, and nutritional foundations of the human mind is so fantastic that it’s hard to believe that we won’t make great insights in the coming years.”

This article is part of the Spring 2012 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.