What Social Networks Can Teach Us about How the Brain Works


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Danielle Bassett talks about winning a MacArthur "genius" grant.

The latest round of fellowship awards by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, announced on September 17, included University of Pennsylvania professor of innovation and bioengineering Danielle S. Bassett. Bassett heads a group that uses network science to develop analytical tools to predict how the human brain works. Specifically, the group looks at neuron interactions to see how they change under particular conditions — for example, when people have an accident, disease or psychiatric disorder.

Bassett, 32, is the youngest recipient of this year’s MacArthur “genius” grants. Today, she discussed her research and the award on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.) During the interview, she explained what traits the brain and social networks share, and how that knowledge might be applied to optimize learning and mental flexibility, among other aspects of cognitive functioning.

“We’re particularly interested in situations in which brain connectivity changes pretty drastically,” she said during the Sirius interview. “That happens during neuro-development, when kids grow up, and whenever any of us learn something new.”

She is also founder of Penn’s Network Visualization program, a six-week internship that pairs local artists with research experts. The artists learn about network science, and use theories and data from the field to inform and inspire their work.

Bassett says the MacArthur funding will allow her team to “ask more risky questions Twitter  — things we aren’t completely sure will work out, but which we think have the propensity to have a really big impact on the field if answered.

“We’re excited by the freedom,” she adds.

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