From philosophy to computational psychiatry, one scientist’s journey into the human mind
Neuroscientist Brooks Casas leads an expansive research program investigating the neural foundations of human thought and action.
Brooks Casas has always been fascinated by human behavior, choice, trust and mental health. That’s what drew him to study philosophy at Harvard, where two senior seminar professors inspired him to ask more empirical questions about the human experience.
Today, Casas runs a multimillion-dollar neuroscience research program at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. His laboratory examines anxiety and personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans, and how the adolescent brain develops.
“We’re blending decision neuroscience, behavioral economics, and social psychology approaches to examine things like trust, risk preferences, and the power of social influence on action,” said Casas, who the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors recently promoted to full professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the College of Science’s Department of Psychology.
Casas is also among the first cohort of scientists to examine real-time neurochemical changes in human research volunteers while they play a gambling game — a project he considers a changemaker for the field.
“This is some of the most exciting research I’ve worked on, because it has such important implications for the future of neuroscience,” Casas said. “Combining this unique neurochemical analysis with our traditional fMRI scanning, computational modeling, and neuroeconomic frameworks lends us new, unparalleled insights into how our brains work.”
This cutting-edge electrochemical research is through a collaboration with Read Montague, professor, and director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Center for Human Neuroscience Research.
Casas has been a faculty member at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute since it first opened its doors in 2011, after being recruited by its founding executive director, Michael Friedlander.
“We are very fortunate to have Dr. Casas and his innovative and bold research program in our Center for Human Neuroscience Research,” said Friedlander, who is also Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “Through powerful collaborations with other faculty here at the institute and across Virginia Tech and with a great team of students and postdoctoral fellows, Dr. Casas is developing profound new insights to better understand decision-making processes and explore the human mind.”
Before joining Virginia Tech’s faculty over a decade ago, Casas was an assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine. Raised in Orange County, California, he completed his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Harvard and spent a year working in a neuroscience laboratory in Germany before returning to Harvard for his doctoral degree in psychology.
We sat down with Casas to ask him about his path into science, what it’s like to collaborate with his wife — fellow computational neuroscientist and professor Pearl Chiu, and the research he’s most excited about.
Your research has covered a lot of ground over the years — from looking at memory biases early on, to neuroeconomics, and more recently brain development. How would you describe the evolution of your research interests?
Decision-making would be an underlying theme across all of my research. I’ve always been interested in human behavior - how people anticipate rewards and make value-based decisions. Combining psychology with behavioral economics has enabled me to apply that framework to a lot of different topics that interest me.
You weren’t always a neuroscientist, however. Tell us about your path from philosophy to cognitive neuroscience.
I’ve always been curious about psychopathology, but I actually started out by studying philosophy as an undergrad. I took a senior seminar on the philosophy of mind with Robert Nozick, who inspired me to seek more empirical ends. I also met Manfred Spitzer, who was a visiting psychiatrist from Germany, and spent a year working with him in Heidelberg before I came back to do my Ph.D. in psychology.
Over the past decade, you’ve been involved in more research involving the adolescent brain, risky decision-making, and how environmental factors influence teenage brain development. You have two children — has being a parent influenced your research?
When we started the adolescent work [in 2013], kids were the furthest thing from my mind. Now my kids are five and seven — so not quite that same developmental stage — but I already see how the way they make decisions changes over time. It’s a bit like having a petri dish at home.
I just thought it was a really interesting research question. At the time, developmental neuroscientists were becoming more interested in how executive control and reward systems develop in the teenage brain, but there weren’t strong experimental paradigms in place yet to decode how teenagers process rewards and risk. That gap, and my work in neuroeconomics, are what really led me to explore developmental neuroscience.
One thing that I have a greater appreciation for now, as a parent, is a child’s individuality. A lot of our research has looked at environmental factors on the adolescent brain — parenting styles, adversity at home, peer pressure, even religion. My own two kids have been raised in what I think is the same way, in the same environment, and I expected our second to be very similar to our first — and yet they are very different people with very different preferences and attitudes and who make different choices. So, that’s been an interesting surprise. We need to take into account both the environment and individual factors.
Your office is right beside that of your wife, Pearl Chiu. What has it been like collaborating on research projects?
It’s honestly a lot more fun working with her. Early on, when we both became faculty around the same time, we got a lot of advice about being married scientists. People emphasized the importance of differentiating ourselves because we’d be judged by our individual research programs. So it wasn’t until we both got tenure that we started to work more closely together. You’d have to ask Pearl, of course, but I’d say it’s a lot more fun working with her.
Twenty years from now, what research are you most excited about?
I’m super excited to have access to these more invasive electrochemical sensing studies in humans for the first time. We’ve just never had the tools to do it before. Much of the advances in cognitive neuroscience have been driven by tools like fMRI, which opened up the study of the brain in so many good ways, but there are still so many open questions. We need ways to bridge the gap between measuring more indirect systems-level brain responses with fMRI and the underlying neurobiology.
The Casas laboratory is recruiting volunteer research participants for four neuroscience projects at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.