Once the fodder of science fiction, mind-reading artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer far-fetched – it’s already here. And researchers like Virginia Tech’s very own Read Montague have spent decades building it.
“What started as a backwater movement in the ’80s is now a revolution with untold potential,” said Montague, the Virginia Tech Carilion Vernon Mountcastle Research Professor and director of the Center for Human Neuroscience Research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.
Montague is among the world’s top neuroscientists who have long deployed machine learning tools to decode and predict complex human behaviors and neural signaling that support them.
Now he’s lifting the lid on what he’s learned over 30 years as a frontrunner in computational psychiatry neuroscience. He will explore the history of machine learning in neuroscience and his research in his talk, “Machine Learning and Human Thought,” at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at the research institute.
Montague’s research has spanned the neural basis of risky decision-making, confirmation bias, risk-reward analysis, mental states during the simulated commission of a crime, impulsiveness, and political ideologies.
His group was the first to observe nanoscale variations in brain chemicals in awake humans in a groundbreaking 2011 study. Montague later discovered how dopamine and serotonin jointly underpin sensory processing and human perception in 2016, 2018, and 2020.
With collaborator and fellow Fralin Biomedical Research Institute professor Stephen LaConte, Montague established one of the world’s first labs applying optically pumped magnetometry, a breakthrough brain imaging technique, to parse the intricacies of social interaction.
He was invited by his former mentor and colleague Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, to present the institute’s 116th Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture, debuting the 2023-34 series.
“Dr. Montague’s contributions to neuroscience have enriched our understanding of the brain and paved the way for a new era of scientific exploration,” Friedlander said. “I can’t think of a better thought leader to share prescient insights about the impact of machine learning on brain research until now and what the future might hold. It’s an honor to share one of our own highly regarded scientists with our community.”
Today, Montague’s peers and students revere his vanguard intersectional approaches to studying the brain. Over the years, he’s collaborated with economists, physicists, neurosurgeons, lawyers, and psychologists to explore novel scientific questions.
Unlike many neuroscientists who started as biologists, psychologists, or chemists, Montague was a mathematician at Auburn University before completing a doctoral degree in physiology and biophysics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in Friedlander’s lab.
“I was a senior in college when I read a paper by Geoffrey Hinton – the father of AI – and Terry Sejnowski, describing the very first learning algorithms for Boltzmann machines. That study galvanized my interest in neural networks, and from that point, I was set on working in Terry’s lab,” Montague said.
And that’s what he did. But it took a while to get there.
Montague completed a theoretical neurobiology fellowship sponsored by Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman at Rockefeller University’s Neurosciences Institute and later joined joined Sejnowski’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Computational Neurobiology Lab at the Salk Institute.
In collaboration with Peter Dayan, director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Germany, Montague proposed a reinforcement learning model of the meaning of dopamine signaling in the brain – a model that is now seen as a signature breakthrough for computational models that yield new insights into brain function.
“Even back then, Dr. Montague was pushing boundaries. He was among the first to apply machine-learning models to interpret vast amounts of fMRI data. He was among the first to measure neurochemical levels in awake humans using machine-learning enhanced cyclic voltammetry. And he’s now among the first to encode brain’s magnetic waves with unprecedented resolution, opening up new ways to visualize brain activity. The sheer scope of his research is remarkable,” Friedlander said.
Montague has published about 140 scientific papers in high-impact journals, accumulating over 42,000 citations. Recently, his research operation has been awarded a new $3 million award for computational neurochemistry work in conscious humans, and the group currently maintains four active National Institutes of Health grants in addition to two projects recently funded by the Red Gates Foundation as part of a landmark $50 million gift to the institute earlier this month.
Before joining Virginia Tech in 2010, Montague was the Brown Foundation Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, where he founded and directed the Human Neuroimaging Lab.
In addition to his primary appointment at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Montague is a professor with the College of Science’s physics department and Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s psychiatry and behavioral medicine department.
Last year, Montague presented a Nobel Mini-symposium lecture hosted by the Nobel Assembly in Stockholm and focused on his early modeling work of the dopamine system. In 2018, he gave the Dorcas Cummings Memorial Lecture at Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory, and in 2012, he delivered a TEDGlobal talk in Edinburgh.
He is an honorary professor with the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging at University College London and was a Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow from 2011-18. He formerly was a member of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He received the Walter Gilbert Award from Auburn University and the William R. and Irene D. Miller Lectureship from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 2011 and was awarded the Michael E. DeBakey Excellence in Research Award in 1997 and 2005.
“Beyond his technological innovations, Montague has opened a critical window into human behavior in health and disease with his key role in developing the temporal difference prediction reward hypothesis,” Friedlander said. “This concept has now been directly tested in the living brain, is foundational to modern neuroscience, and provides deep insights into previously unrecognized behavior. In addition to providing insights into human brain health, this hypothesis has been validated by Montague and his team in providing a deeper understanding from an evolutionary biology perspective into behaviors such as how honey bees process and share essential information about nectar sources with their conspecifics.”
The institute’s free public lecture series is made possible by Maury Strauss, a longtime Roanoke businessman and benefactor who recognizes the importance of bringing leading biomedical research scientists to the community.
The public is welcome to attend the lecture, preceded by a 5 p.m. reception in the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at 2 Riverside Circle in Roanoke. Montague’s talk will be streamed live via Zoom and archived on the institute’s website.