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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Laws of attraction

Columbia’s neuroscience program has always been strong. For many years, however, its reputation was defined by a small number of scientists, including Eric Kandel, eighty-two, a Nobel Prize winner whose research on memory and learning made him, in the eyes of many people, the most important neuroscientist of the twentieth century; Richard Axel, sixty-six, who won a Nobel Prize in 2004 for decoding how the brain perceives smell; and Tom Jessell, sixty-one, a Kavli Prize winner whose work on the assembly of motor-neuron circuits is now a cornerstone of almost all efforts to find stem-cell treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Lou Gehrig’s.

The program started to expand in the late 1990s. “It had become obvious we had some gaps to fill,” says Jessell, “and the University started to invest in making ours a more well-rounded community.”

The first area that Jessell and his colleagues sought to strengthen was cognitive neuroscience, which involves the study of how our most complex thoughts are rooted in brain physiology. This is the type of work that Shadlen does, and his arrival here was preceded by the recruitment of two other leading cognitive neuroscientists, Mickey Goldberg and Daniel Salzman, in 2001. Both are moving to the Greene Science Center.

The next step was to hire some theoretical neuroscientists. Often trained as physicists, mathematicians, or computer scientists, these expert number crunchers build computer models to predict how brain circuits will behave in different circumstances. In doing so, they are able to help other neuroscientists design appropriate experiments and interpret their data. This is especially helpful to the cognitive neuroscientists, whose work involves analyzing the interactions among neurons in the brain’s most complicated regions, such as the association cortex. In this part of the brain, circuits carrying information related to our senses, memories, and emotions all interact and feed back against each other, making any data collected there very difficult to parse.

Shadlen says the prospect of collaborating with Columbia theoreticians Larry Abbott and Stefano Fusi was a major reason he came here. Abbott and Fusi today are developing ways to pick out signals from some of the noisiest data sets, including those drawn from brain circuits that, in a truly bewildering feat called multiplexing, are able to transmit two messages simultaneously.

“So far, I’ve been able to weed through this stuff,” says Shadlen. “But eventually I want to do experiments where I’m looking at numerous brain circuits as they interact so that I can see how a subject’s thoughts about visual data are being influenced by, say, memories or auditory information. That’s where I’m really going to need those guys.”

Let’s think bigger

It became apparent that the University would need to build a new home for its growing neuroscience program more than ten years ago. The original idea was to create a rather small center on the medical campus, a home only for “card-carrying neuroscientists,” as Jessell puts it. But after Lee C. Bollinger became president in 2002, the plan evolved into something much grander. Jessell recalls being invited, along with Kandel, to Bollinger’s home for breakfast a couple of years later, and listening to Bollinger describe his vision for making brain research an intellectual lynchpin for Columbia’s twenty-first-century campus.

“Now, rather than simply building a new science facility, we’re talking about creating a space for some truly exciting interdisciplinary work, where neuroscientists would be able to interact not just with other scientists but with people in the humanities, business, and the arts, you name it,” says Jessell. “It made sense that this should happen closer to the Morningside campus.”

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