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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Plans for the Greene Science Center were publicly announced — along with a lead gift of $250 million from the late Dawn Greene and the Jerome L. Greene Foundation — in March 2006. Renzo Piano, an Italian architect known for his ingenuity in letting natural light into buildings, was commissioned to design a facility with spacious interiors and meeting areas to promote interactions among the one thousand people who will be working there. The building’s construction is now well underway, its gigantic steel columns rising from the ground on a plot where a parking lot, a gas station, and a warehouse once stood.

“Neuroscientists want to have lots of other people around them, because our work is so complicated we can’t possibly solve every challenge on our own,” says Jessell. “Working with chemists, we could come up with new ways of tracking molecules in the brain. With engineers, we could invent new microscopes. We need psychologists and social scientists, meanwhile, to tell us which questions are the most important to ask about the brain and human behavior.”

When the Greene Science Center is fully occupied, approximately two-thirds of its sixty-five labs will be run by neuroscience faculty, with the remainder being run by professors from departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences or the engineering school. A handful of researchers from the Morningside campus are already working on MBBI-related projects, including biomedical engineer and brain-imaging expert Elizabeth Hillman and cognitive psychologists Daphna Shohamy and Sarah Woolley.

The Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative will also offer a temporary home for scholars in any field — whether law, art history, economics, or public health — to come and work alongside neuroscientists for stays that could range from a few weeks to a couple of years. This is expected to be a popular sabbatical option for scholars, because neuroscientists today are making rapid progress in describing how brain activity guides human behavior. New brain-scanning technology, for instance, has revealed that people clinically defined as sociopaths tend to have anatomical abnormalities that make them feel less empathy. Legal scholars have taken a keen interest, in part because defense lawyers are now regularly submitting their clients’ brain scans as evidence in trials, arguing that people with these physical traits should be held to different standards of legal and moral accountability.

Brain-scanning technology has revealed that sociopaths tend to have anatomical abnormalities that make them feel less empathy. Should they be held to different standards of legal and moral accountability?

“Clearly, this is an area where neuroscientists need to be working closely with lawyers,” says Kandel. “We first need to figure out which types of anatomical evidence should be considered valid in the courtroom. Then, as we develop therapies to help sociopaths feel more empathy, courts might consider those options when handing out judgments, especially when dealing with adolescents or teenagers who are still developing psychologically.”

Other new areas for interdisciplinary research include the nascent field of neuroaesthetics, in which art historians and brain scientists are studying how our responses to art and music are rooted in brain physiology; and neuroeconomics, which attempts to understand how people make decisions of all types, including, but not limited to, traditional economic decisions like investing. Neuroeconomics is a particularly vibrant area of research now, since many economists believe that brain science may be able to explain why people frequently act irrationally and against their own best interests.

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