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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This raises fascinating questions: Why do we like bitter foods like coffee, beer, and olives? Sour lemons and tamarind? Rotten-tasting cheeses like Limburger and pungent fish dishes like hákarl? Zuker suspects it may be for the same reason we like riding roller coasters, bungee jumping, or swimming next to waterfalls: we get a thrill from doing things that our bodies tell us, instinctively, are bad for us.

“There’s something undeniably powerful going on here,” he says. “What is it? Why do we enjoy living on the edge? Why does it make us feel connected to something larger than ourselves? This is what I’m after: I want to understand how we think about sensation.”

“Why do we enjoy living on the edge? Why does it make us feel connected to something larger than ourselves? This is what I'm after: I want to understand how we think about sensation." — Charles Zuker

Zuker hopes to collaborate with Shadlen to explore these types of questions. “Today, most of us are still studying the brain’s periphery, which is where sensory signals go in and motor signals come out,” he says. “But Mike is venturing deep into the great in-between area, which is where our conscious thoughts are forming. That’s the real wilderness. Just about everybody wants to team up with him.”

Shadlen, in turn, hopes that by working with scientists who are experts on the brain’s chemical composition, such as Zuker, he will contribute to the development of entirely new types of drug treatments for schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. A shortcoming of nearly all existing medications, he says, is that they alter the levels of chemicals found throughout the brain and therefore result in myriad side effects. A solid understanding of the brain’s neural time integrator, Shadlen says, could reveal drug targets that are more specific to the original source of psychiatric disorders.

Despite all the talk of collaboration, neither Shadlen nor Zuker is expecting MBBI to be a love fest.

“There was a time, five or ten years ago, when I probably would have told you that a lot of the scientists who have just become my Columbia colleagues suffered from a sort of molecular hubris, in that they thought that everything you needed to know about the brain could be learned by studying its smallest constituent parts,” says Shadlen. “There’s still some distance between us. We’ve begun finding some common ground because we all realize that the big challenge now is to bring together our puzzle pieces and figure out how they fit together. But we’ll be having some very candid conversations moving forward. I’m expecting the gloves to come off.”

Zuker, when asked his impressions of Shadlen’s neural time integrator, pauses.

“Am I convinced that Mike is pursuing the right questions?” Zuker says. “I’m not sure. But I’ll tell you this: I believe in him as a scientist. I admire his logic and discipline. And our goals are the same: neither of us is satisfied with proteins, genes, circuits — this stuff. We want consciousness, free will, self-awareness. We want drugs that get at the roots of mental illness rather than glossing over the symptoms. We want it all. The whole damn thing.”

Michael Shadlen is a professor of neuroscience at the College of Physicians and Surgeons and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Shadlen studies the computational processes used by the brain to formulate thoughts.

Charles Zuker teaches in the Department of Neuroscience and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His research focuses on the neurological mechanisms underlying human sensory experience.

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