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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“Studies have shown that people will sometimes overestimate their own abilities, fail to plan for the future, or rely too much on others to look out for their interests,” says Alessandra Casella, a Columbia economist. “But we have no unified theory to explain why people act in these ways. The hope among economists is that by working with neuroscientists we’ll identify brain mechanisms that reveal why people make good decisions in some circumstances and bad decisions in others. That’s a long way off, but it’s the Holy Grail.”

To make sure the Greene Science Center’s environment is conducive to collaborations of this sort, Jessell says, all the neuroscientists being recruited for the program have one thing in common: they are all intellectually adventurous, expansive thinkers.

“We’re not hiring people who are going to hole themselves up in their laboratories,” he says. “They need to come ready to debate, to engage with people outside their world, and to collaborate on this gigantic canvas we are all staring at together.”

Taste and transcendence

On a July afternoon, Charles Zuker sat slouched in a cushiony leather chair in his office at Columbia’s medical campus. He looked stylish and relaxed, his tall and slender frame draped in a loose-fitting cotton shirt and designer blue jeans, sandals on his feet and a pair of reading glasses atop his head.

“You want to know why I’d leave Southern California, right?” he asks with a wide grin. “I’ll tell you why: because I believe in magic. And when you take the craziest, most wildly ambitious and brilliant minds in neuroscience and stick them all together in one building and let them go nuts, that’s what is going to happen.”

Zuker is MBBI’s most prominent recruit aside from Shadlen, and like his new colleague, he is gregarious, funny, and inclined to discussing big philosophical issues related to the brain. But whereas Shadlen has a touch of the earnest and eager schoolboy, Zuker is all cool, calm, and suntanned charisma. He drives a Porsche Twin Turbo, and if you saw him pulling onto campus, you might guess he was somebody famous you should recognize. Shortly before coming to Columbia from UC –San Diego three years ago, he built himself a waterfront home that appeared on the cover of Dream Homes San Diego magazine.

“It had a pool with an infinity edge, which means the water pours off one side like a waterfall,” says Zuker. “Beyond the pool was the ocean. Incredible sensation, that — swimming over the sea. But it was only a home. My soul had to come here.”

Zuker, fifty-four, was raised in Arica, Chile, the grandson of Polish and Russian Jews who fled Europe before the Holocaust. He entered college at age fifteen and earned his doctorate from MIT at twenty-three. He has since discovered nearly everything that is known about our perception of taste. He’s isolated the genes that encode our taste cells, the receptors upon those cells, the chemical pathways that lead up to the brain, and the specific c brain areas that are responsible for our subjective experiences of flavors. In collaboration with researchers at Harvard and the Monell Chemical Senses Center, Zuker has described these mechanisms for all five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and “umami,” the savory sensation that comes from eating protein.

“Saltiness we nailed just recently,” says Zuker, whose name is the German word for sugar. “It is the trickiest taste to study, because we respond to salt very differently depending on the amount — a little bit is nice, while a lot is gross.”

Studying taste, Zuker believes, could reveal a lot about the human condition. That’s because taste, among all of our senses, is the only one that we respond to in ways that are largely determined by our genes. That is, we all innately like sweetness and are repulsed by sourness, bitterness, and excessive saltiness.

“Sweet is sustenance and bitter is toxic, and for most of our history the way to stay alive was to trust your tongue,” says Zuker. “By contrast, our responses to different smells are almost entirely socially learned, if you can believe it.”

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