Uncovering the Neuroscientific Basis of Human Behavior and Disease

Uncovering the Neuroscientific Basis of Human Behavior and Disease

Columbia University

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They are among the deepest and most challenging questions in science: how does the finite number of neurons in a human brain produce thoughts and feelings, generate desire and imagination, give rise to consciousness? More prosaically but just as challenging, how does autism arise? What can be done to treat Alzheimer's or Parkinson's diseases, depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder?

Neuroscientists have made major strides in exploring the brain and its disorders, from discovering the molecular basis for memory to mapping the circuits involved in a wide range of behaviors. But with so much more to be learned, Columbia University in 2012 launched the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, a transformational venture in neuroscience that will pursue cutting-edge research to gain deeper insights into human mental functions in both health and disease.

A key goal of the Zuckerman Institute, which will be one of the nation's largest private academic research institutes dedicated to research on the brain and mind, is understanding the inner workings of the brain and the interplay between mind, brain, and behavior. The functions of the healthy brain are just as mysterious as its malfunctions, and neuroscientists are eager to understand such enigmas as how humans make decisions and how a particular pattern of neural activity becomes the subjective sensory experience of "red" or "sour," of worry or fear or joy. The brain is the organ of behavior, so in theory every human behavior should be fair game for neuroscience, which means this field, perhaps more than any other in science, has the potential to interact with a broad range of intellectual endeavors.

"For the first time we have the technology to measure extensively the real effects of drugs and treatment on the brain that would dramatically increase our capacity to deal with that very complicated part of our anatomy."

With that in mind, the Zuckerman Institute will include an innovative mix of scientists and scholars from such fields as structural biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, psychiatry, engineering, law, business, political science, and economics. This interdisciplinary, collaborative approach, combined with the remarkable resources of Columbia University, make this a groundbreaking venture. The University has designed the Zuckerman Institute to link neuroscience with programs in other fields across Columbia, ranging from statistics and mathematics to business and the arts.

One of the Zuckerman Institute's co-directors, Eric Kandel, says it, "places Columbia in a position to produce a paradigm shift in how brain science is practiced by connecting to the many facets of the academic enterprise that are concerned with mind and behavior, including law, economic decision making, sociology, psychology, and art."

One has only to scratch the surface of those fields to see that many of the questions they pursue are, fundamentally, about behavior and thus about the organ of behavior.

Why is saving money so much less pleasurable for most people than spending it? Why do people see beauty in some works of art and nature, but not others? What is the brain basis for creativity, inspiration, confirmation bias, xenophobia, and the myriads of other products and quirks of the mind? How is it that young children are sponges for language, learning their mother tongue effortlessly? Despite revolutionary advances in our understanding of the brain and its component neurons and circuits, precisely how brain networks do all of this and more is still one of the most poorly understood areas of modern biology.

The Zuckerman Institute will gain a dedicated physical space in 2016; planning for the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, a 450,000 square-foot structure on the University's new Manhattanville campus in West Harlem is underway. However, the Institute's work has already begun; it has assembled scholars who possess a record of accomplishment in the brain sciences which is unsurpassed at any other research university.

Its three founding co-directors are Thomas Jessell, the Claire Tow Professor in the Department of Neuroscience and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics; Richard Axel, University Professor of Biochemistry, Molecular Biophysics and Pathology, who shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004 for his pioneering research on the olfactory system; and Kandel, University Professor, Kavli Professor of Brain Science, director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, and a 2000 Nobel laureate for his work on the cellular foundations of learning and memory. Over the next several years, through carefully planned recruitment, the Institute's core faculty—those based in the Greene Science Center—will grow to 65 members, plus a number of independent junior fellows, visiting scholars, and affiliate faculty who are based at the University's Morningside, Manhattanville, and Medical Center campuses.

At a forum last year, Zuckerman said, "Eric Kandel is the visionary who convinced me that we stand at the edge of a new era of understanding of the human mind. He explained that for the first time we have the technology to measure extensively the real effects of drugs and treatment on the brain that would dramatically increase our capacity to deal with that very complicated part of our anatomy... Who could not be motivated by the potential benefits to this field of scientific research?"

For more than 250 years, Columbia University has been attracting the best minds to New York in pursuit of the highest quality research, teaching, and public service. With the Zuckerman Institute, Columbia will draw global attention to New York as a center of great neuroscientific innovation, continuing its rich legacy of enriching both the city's culture and the economy.

Photo: Zuckerman Institute scientist Nathaniel Sawtell (far right) and colleagues investigate the inner workings of the brain. Credit: John Abbott Photograph