Imagine you are surrounded by friends and colleagues at a fun and exciting party. You hear people around you talking, glasses clinking, and a sports game on a big screen television. What happens in your mind that allows you to instantly choose to join the conversation about a friend’s recent trip to Cuba? Called the Cocktail Party Problem, this is what intrigues Elana Zion Golumbic, Senior Lecturer in the Gonda Brain Research Center, Bar Ilan University. As a cognitive neuroscientist she enjoys bridging the world of the physical and biological sciences with cognition.
A recent recipient of the Bergmann Memorial Award, Zion Golumbic related, “This represents important recognition of my work. I look to the BSF as a good platform to continue significant relationships with colleagues in the United States and to solidify those relationships for the future.” She shared that few granting agencies emphasis collaboration between scientists, “The award funds are helpful -- I have used the award to purchase a virtual reality system to simulate real life for my research volunteers -- but from my perspective the big benefit of the BSF is the ability to sustain professional relationships”
As listeners, we pick up important auditory cues and clues while we are deeply engaged in a conversation, and while a distraction might occur across the room, we might not be aware of it as we are receiving information from many sources. Our ear functions as a microphone, but it cannot separate out conversations on its own. Zion Golumbic studies how the brain is able to distinguish between the inputs from different speakers and to turn up the volume on one conversation while ignoring another. “Airplane pilots are an example for ‘attentional experts’, who excel in concentrating on one thing while scanning many other inputs at the same time,” related Zion Golumbic. “Yet, many in our society find this difficult, such as the aging population with hearing loss, or those faced with the challenges of ADHD.” Her work has real world applications as she explains, “As we better understand our behavior within the Cocktail Party setting, we can train people to gain control and be better attenders.”
Zion Golumbic is fortunate that at Bar Ilan University she has access to cutting edge technology to help measure the brain’s function. Bar Ilan has the only magnetoencephalography machine, or MEG for short, in Israel. With it, she can record signals more accurately and pinpoint what is happening within the brain. Although also not readily available in the United States, both her colleague David Poeppel, Professor of Psychology and Neural Science in the New York University Department of Psychology and she use the MEG in their research.
Said Poeppel, “Elana came to New York and worked with Charlie Schroeder (of Columbia University and the Nathan Kline Institute) and me. She was the post-doc of one’s dreams! Elana took up ideas that Charlie and I had developed - independently and largely disconnected - and she linked them and turned them into theoretically well motivated, technically cutting edge, and just plain clever experiments that we had not thought of. We generated several papers together, bridging insights from animal physiology, human cognitive neuroscience, experimental psychology, and language research. She made fundamental progress using two highly complex brain recording techniques, the MEG and Electrocorticography (ECoG), on how the brain rhythms that “entrain” to spoken input, say a conversation, are represented in the human brain, and how attending to one or the other event, say one speaker in a conversation, can be selected and amplified by attention. Her work on attention and its role in exploiting brain rhythms provides some critical new insights about how certain brain mechanisms form the basis for complex cognition, such as the interplay between language comprehension and attention.”
Also from Bar Ilan University is noted mathematician and Professor Mina Teicher, a long time BSF Board of Governors member, “The Bergmann Memorial Award evolved over the years into a very prestigious award,” said Teicher. “I am very glad that one of the Israel award winners in 2014 was Elana Zion Golumbic. Elana is a rising star in neuroscience. Following her postdoctoral position, she returned to Israel to a prestigious position in the Gonda Brain Research Center in Bar Ilan University. Her work in perception and representation in the brain is truly interdisciplinary and crosses borders. One of her topics is the "Cocktail Party Problem"– how the brain eliminates background noise and allows a conversation in a noisy environment. I trust she and her BSF partner from the United States will contribute to the most challenging question in the 21st century – How does the brain work?”
Zion Golumbic’s day is taken up with writing, teaching, mentoring students, interaction with research subjects and laboratory work. With a husband who is a Jewish educator and Rabbi and raising three young daughters, she is excited by this phase in her life. Finding balance is always a challenge as she goes between her family and her growing laboratory.