The Brain Trust

Columbia’s Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative is assembling the best thinkers in the world to study the most complex object in the known universe. How far can this neurological dream team go?

by David J. Craig Published Fall 2012
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The Brain Trust by David J. Craig

Michael Shadlen is the latest to arrive. He has come from the University of Washington, after running his own laboratory there for seventeen years. Over the summer he packed up his lab equipment, put his family’s Seattle home on the market, and moved to New York City. He has come for a job in a Columbia research program that is still taking shape, in a new laboratory that won’t exist until 2016.

“It’s no fun from a logistical standpoint, because my team will have to move twice,” says Shadlen, one of the world’s top neuroscientists. “But I knew from the first phone call that I wanted in.”

He is in very good company. Larry Abbott, a prominent theoretical neuroscientist who is a wizard at analyzing enormous data sets, came to Columbia from Brandeis in 2005. Stefano Fusi, another leading theoretician, was recruited from ETH Zürich in 2007. Charles Zuker, a biochemist who discovered how the brain perceives taste, arrived from the University of California, San Diego, in 2009. Tom Maniatis, a pioneer of genetic cloning who studies how DNA guides brain development, was plucked from Harvard the next year. Mark Churchland, a young theoretical neuroscientist who has shown that groups of brain cells will sometimes work together like members of a musical ensemble, tapping out rhythmic signals that are meaningful only when combined, left Stanford for Columbia in 2011.

What has drawn them here is the Columbia University Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative (MBBI), a new program intended to solve mysteries such as these: How do the electrical impulses of brain cells turn into thoughts? How do these thoughts give rise to all manner of human experience — love, compassion, anger, jealousy?

“The truth is that we are just beginning to study how the brain functions at that level,” says Eric Kandel, an eminent Columbia neuroscientist and one of MBBI’s three codirectors.

Illustrations by Mark SteeleToday, most of what is known about the brain involves the molecular composition and functioning of its individual cells, or neurons. The decoding of the human genome has enabled scientists to look deep inside brain cells and identify molecules involved in Alzheimer’s disease and some addictive disorders. At the gross anatomical level, researchers are using new scanning technology to identify areas of the brain where emotions get processed, which may one day help doctors diagnose and treat mood disorders like depression. But ask any neuroscientist how the hundred billion neurons in your brain coordinate their activities to help you read, speak, or decide what to eat, and you’ll likely get a shrug.

“Addressing these questions is going to be the greatest intellectual challenge of the twenty-first century,” says Kandel. “It will have a huge benefit, not only for improving disease treatments, but also for advancing our knowledge of human nature.”

Kandel and fellow codirectors Thomas Jessell and Richard Axel ’67CC have in recent years overseen the hiring of more than a dozen prominent brain scientists. In the next few years, they hope to hire twenty more. Among the enticements they are offering recruits is laboratory space in an elegant new glass building, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, which is scheduled to open in 2016 on Columbia’s new seventeen-acre campus in Manhattanville. What is unusual about their recruitment effort is that they are not only trying to lure the world’s best neuroscientists to their program, but also physicists, mathematicians, astronomers, engineers, biologists, and psychologists — anybody with fresh ideas to bring to the table.

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