Your Beautiful Brain

Dispatches from the frontiers of neuroscience.

by Bill Retherford '14JRN Published Winter 2016
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Even with extraordinary tech advances, basic research — the day-to-day slog work — is indispensable. Without it, scientists will never unleash the miracle treatments awaited by millions. “You can’t fix a car if you don’t know what’s under the hood,” says Rudy Behnia, a CUMC assistant professor of neuroscience and a principal investigator at the Zuckerman Institute. “To cure problems of the brain, we first need to understand it.” By gradually mapping those trillions of neuronal circuits — by looking under the hood — Columbia scientists will eventually grasp how the engine runs; effective treatments for neurological and psychiatric diseases will ultimately follow. And that, really, is the crux of the institute’s mission. “Understand first how the normal brain works, and then you have a much better chance of assessing how abnormalities arise,” says Jessell.

There are so many psychiatric and neurological diseases that we just don’t understand and don’t treat successfully.

That is where the slog work comes in. Cultivating stem cells in a petri dish, then tweaking them so they’ll morph into certain kinds of neurons, is a comparatively modest enterprise, but often takes months. Learning how to record the neural activity in a mouse brain could require years. And a grad student within any of the neuroscience disciplines could spend more than a half decade exhaustively scrutinizing what appear to be minutiae. “There’s a lot of labor pain in science,” says Behnia.

Frequently, the basic research goes nowhere. Science, seldom a linear excursion, typically sputters ahead in spasms and is routinely cratered with crash landings and wipeouts. “You put a lot of time and effort into something, and you have to be OK with it not giving you anything,” says Behnia. “It happens to everyone. You have to let it go and start all over. It’s hard. You learn through your failures. But nothing really fails, because you learn what doesn’t work.” The converse is also true. As Jessell says to every last one of his graduate students: “You’ll probably discover something no one else in the history of mankind ever realized. It may not be a big thing. But if you enjoy the clarity that arises from small discoveries, then you’re attuned to being a scientist.”

Those “small discoveries” may someday lead to cures, and perhaps sooner than you might think. “These may be the early days,” says Bruno. “But some of the most fundamental discoveries will be made in the early days.”

Sarah Woolley, a Columbia professor of psychology and a Zuckerman Institute principal investigator,
has been studying songbirds for more than twenty years. Take the zebra finch, for example, one of five thousand species of songbird and one of the few that sing only one song. “They breed in the lab,” she says. “They sing, they court, they mate for life, they make a nest, they raise babies, all in the lab.”

What attracts Woolley is the singing part — and the similarities between how songbirds and people learn to vocalize. That’s something almost no other animal does: just humans, parrots, hummingbirds, dolphins (probably), bats (maybe), and songbirds. “An ape does not learn to vocalize,” says Woolley. Dogs don’t learn to bark, and cats don’t learn to purr either. Those sounds surely convey a message — a monkey shrieks to let its troop know a snake is coming. “But that’s not learned,” says Woolley. “Those are calls built into the brain.”

Sarah Woolley’s studies of songbirds may shed light on why autistic children find it difficult to communicate. / Photograph by John Abbott

A baby zebra finch, however, learns to sing by listening to its father. That’s pretty much the way people learn to speak; infants access language by listening to and socializing with their parents — or whoever’s around them the most. Sure enough, when Woolley slips a baby zebra finch into the nest of another species (the Bengalese finch), the baby learns the foster dad’s song. “That shows the power of live social interactions for baby birds to learn how to communicate,” she says. In both humans and songbirds, Woolley theorizes, a set of neurons in the brain rouse a distinct kind of learning, one stimulated by social relationships. Those neurons, she suggests, “may send signals that say, ‘OK, learn this, this is important, this matters.’”

Now the kicker. Woolley suspects those corresponding neurons in humans somehow malfunction in autistic children. For them, acquiring language is often an enormous obstacle. “Maybe the signals that say ‘learn’ do not go to the auditory system or the brain circuits that form memory,” she says. What is known: sensory processing is glitchy in autistic kids. A touch on the shoulder may repel them, a direct look might make them shudder, and a loud sound is often excruciating. No wonder so many of them avoid social interactions. Bonding may induce learning, but if bonding is painful, then so is learning — and it doesn’t happen. “But if we can figure out in our birds what makes their brains able to learn based on social interactions,” says Woolley, “then we might be able to find ways to help the autistic brain.”

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