Your Beautiful Brain

Dispatches from the frontiers of neuroscience.

by Bill Retherford '14JRN Published Winter 2016
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Photograph by Getty Images

Peer into the human skull, probe the brain’s tofu-like texture, and there, in that microscopic terrain, the neurons exist, nearly infinitesimal. Fifty of them would fit on the period at the end of this sentence. Most form before birth and stay with us until death, although some, due to disease or disuse, eventually shrink, slow down, or succumb. The brains of frogs hold sixteen million neuronal cells; fox terriers, one hundred sixty million. Yet the human brain, with its eighty-six billion neurons, still doesn’t house the most. The African elephant has three times as many, and blue whales likely have billions more, though no one is certain.

Individual neurons are not self-aware. They do not know what they are, where they are, or who you are. They do not think. Rather, they permit us to think. Like the frenzy within a pinball machine, the neurons fling directives back and forth, ceaselessly communicating and connecting with other nerve cells. These neuronal networks control every thought, feeling, sensation, and movement. They are the conduits that lead to consciousness; they make sense of our senses. Only because of them do our brains and bodies work. Minus the networks, our minds would be slush, gibberish. Phantasms would replace perceptions.

Each neuron typically links to thousands more, perhaps up to fifteen thousand more, drawing on the measliest of electrical currents (0.07 volts — an AA battery carries twenty times as much). Those currents, moving neuron to neuron, sprint through a phalanx of connectors, called synapses, at speeds up to almost three hundred miles per hour. Signals from the brain’s motor cortex, for example, rush through the central nervous system to the neuronal networks in the legs. Those electrical pokes regulate balance, direction, stride, and speed, along with dozens of other things; such is the abridged neurological backstory to taking a single step. By the end of adolescence, the neurons will have engineered five hundred trillion connections. Take those connections — from just one brain, mind you — string them along Interstate 95 somehow, and they would stretch from Columbia University to Columbia, South Carolina.

Thomas M. Jessell likes to call the Jerome L. Greene Science Center a place for the "collision of ideas." / Photograph by Jill Levine

Neurons are colloquially called the brain’s “basic building blocks.” And we do know the basics about how individual neurons work. But fathoming how trillions of them talk across seventy-eight compartments of brain topography is a conundrum. And repairing flawed networks to conclusively cure brain disorders, like autism or Alzheimer’s, remains an enigma — looming, daunting, slow to undrape itself. “I don’t want to make it sound like we know nothing,” says Michael Shadlen, a professor of neuroscience at the Columbia University Herbert and Florence Irving Medical Center (CUMC). “But there are basic, basic phenomena that we know nothing about. Everything we discover provokes deeper questions.”

Wrapping one’s head around the human mind is very hard. Figuring yourself out always is. “The greatest scientific challenge we are now facing,” says Charles Zuker, professor of biochemistry, molecular biophysics, and neuroscience at CUMC, “is to understand the workings of the brain.”

The glass building awaits in West Harlem,
at the intersection of Broadway and 129th Street, thirteen blocks north of the Morningside Heights campus gates. Overshadowing a space previously occupied by long-abandoned warehouses, it was the first structure erected on the school’s new seventeen-acre Manhattanville campus. A $250 million gift helped make it happen — from the Renzo Piano ’14HON design to the construction of the building’s more than fifty laboratories.

Dawn M. Greene ’08HON, the philanthropist, bestowed the gift in 2006. Her husband of nineteen years, Jerome L. Greene ’26CC, ’28LAW, ’83HON, was an attorney, real-estate developer, and billionaire; he graduated from Columbia Law School just before the Great Depression began. Over the next seventy-one years, he would give hundreds of millions of dollars to charitable causes. He died in 1999, age ninety-three, one of New York City’s most powerful figures. Even after death he endures: the name on the building is the Jerome L. Greene Science Center.

The building’s approximately eight hundred tenants will include scientists, principal investigators, lab managers, postdocs, graduate students, and staff from Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, itself relatively new. The institute was established in December 2012 with a $200 million gift from Zuckerman ’14HON, owner of the New York Daily News and chairman of U.S. News & World Report. Says Thomas M. Jessell, one of the Zuckerman Institute’s three codirectors and a Columbia professor of biochemistry, molecular biophysics, and neuroscience: “Our simple task now is to create the best institute for neural science in the US, and, arguably, in the world.”

The move into the Greene Science Center kickstarts that assignment. “Really great science is going to come from it,” says Shadlen, a Zuckerman Institute principal investigator. A place for “the collision of ideas,” as Jessell likes to say. Right now, the institute’s scientists are largely disconnected, geographically speaking; they’re spread across six buildings throughout the Morningside Heights and medical center campuses. “We’ve really been constrained, hindered, slowed down by all these labs that have similar interests, scattered all over,” says Randy Bruno, another Zuckerman Institute investigator.

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