MBBI E-Newsletter | November 2012 Issue


› October was Brain Month at Columbia
› MBBI co-director Jessell wins Gairdner Award
› Mark Churchland, Ph.D., Wins 2012 NIH Director's New Innovator Award
› "Split" Decision: Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D., Opts to Move East

October was Brain Month at Columbia

Trumpeting both its innovative Mind Brain Behavior Initiative (MBBI) and the state-of-the-art Jerome L. Greene Science Center currently under construction, Columbia University celebrated Brain Month throughout October 2012. All month long, Columbia brought neuroscientists out of the lab and into the spotlight, in both traditional and unusual venues.

The diverse events of Brain Month exemplified the interdisciplinary focus of MBBI. Through lectures, panel discussions, web chats, exhibits, and performances – many open to the general public – Columbia showcased its exceptional researchers, who are leading a transformation in the study of the brain and driving the field into new and unanticipated directions

Although a full schedule of events can be seen here, below are links to view some events in full if you were unable to join us:

CAA Alumni Leaders Panel:Understanding Our Brains, Understanding Ourselves

October 12, 2012 at the New York Historical Society
Featuring: Moderator: Jonathan Weiner '11CC, Maxwell M. Geffen Professor of Medical and Scientific Journalism, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Pulitzer Prize winner (The Beak of the Finch) and
  • Richard Axel, 2004 Nobel laureate; University Professor; investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institue; co-director of the Mind Brain Behavior Institute
  • Lise Eliot '87PS, '91PS, associate professor of neuroscience, Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University; author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain
  • Neil Shneider '90PS, '93PS, '94PS, assistant professor, Department of Neurology, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University
  • Leslie Vosshall '87CC, professor of biochemistry; investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Robin Chemers Neustein Professor and head, Laboratory of Neurogenetics and Behavior, Rockefeller University
You can see the entire panel discussion here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzL4c_RuA3c&feature=youtu.be

Frontiers of Science Core Course Lecture with Eric Kandel, MD: We Are What We Remember: Memory and the Biological Basis of Individuality

October 18, 2012 at Miller Theatre
Nobel laureate and Fred Kavli Professor Eric Kandel, MD, co-director of the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative lectured to undergraduate students in the Frontiers of Science. You can see the entire lecture here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_l7vjJp13Bk

Live Web Chat with Eric Kandel, MD

October 24, 2012
Nobel laureate and Fred Kavli Professor Eric Kandel, MD, who also serves as director of the Kavli Institute for Brian Science at Columbia University and co-director of MBBI, participated in a live conversation online. This special event coincided with Columbia Giving Day, the University's first all-campus event promoting annual giving to change lives that change the world – just as Dr. Kandel has done.

Please listen to the online conversation here: http://givingday.columbia.edu/conversations

Café Science: Singing in the Brain

Craft New York – to be rescheduled due to Hurricane Sandy
Professor Sarah Woolley, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology at Columbia who studies songbirds and what their mating habits might tell us about the human brain. She will be joined by a human songbird, acclaimed singer/songwriter Jill Sobule. If you are interested to learn more about this event when it's rescheduled, please email mbbi@columbia.edu

For a three-pound organ, the brain offers limitless wonders and areas of investigation. During Columbia University's Brain Month, participants got first-hand information from the front lines of discovery.

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MBBI co-director Jessell wins Gairdner Award

Add Canada's prestigious Gairdner Award to MBBI co-director Thomas M. Jessell's crowded shelf of honors. Dr. Jessell, Claire Tow Professor in the Department of Neuroscience and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University, received the award at a dinner in Toronto on October 25 as part of a month-long celebration in which Gairdner winners presented lectures at 21 universities throughout Canada.

The Canada Gairdner Awards were created in 1959 to recognize and reward the achievements of medical researchers whose work contributes significantly to improving the quality of human life. Dr. Jessell was selected for this globally respected international science award for his discovery of basic principles of communication within the nervous system. According to the Gairdner Foundation, "Jessell's work has been instrumental in revealing fundamental steps in the assembly and function of neuronal circuits that control movement."

Says Dr. Jessell, "The Gairdner Award has a distinguished reputation and to reflect on the peer group of prior winners is impressive and humbling. So it is of course a great honor to be so recognized. At the same time, awards such as this tend to personalize the individual whereas my research has been – and continues to be – a team effort."

Recognizing groundbreaking research

Dr. Jessell notes that his groundbreaking research does not represent a moment in time but rather an ongoing effort of years and even decades. "Research is an iterative process where you realize that even when making progress, one is really just scratching the surface of larger, more fundamental problems. So an award such as the Gairdner is welcome in that it provides the resilience and persistence to continue in the face of adversity. The fact is, most experiments – no matter how carefully they are planned – fail to provide the results you were hoping for."

Dr. Jessell's research is at the heart of neuroscience investigation – or, more accurately, one could say that it is the backbone. By studying the assembly and organization of the circuit that controls movement in the spinal cord nervous system, his lab identified the direct connection between the sensory neurons that take in information from the world around us, and the motor neurons that direct how our muscles contract in response to that information.

The centrality of the motor system in human existence and the fact that it permits, in Dr. Jessell's words, "principled observations of how circuits work," make his research of interest to neuroscience researchers working in other areas.

"Now that we know how the system takes information, processes it, and uses it to program movement and behavior, we hope that what is learned here will have application in other areas of the brain," he says. "The wonderful thing about Columbia is that there is an active dialogue among scientists. Our research will hopefully have points of intersection that will intrigue our colleagues. I certainly have benefited crucially from other Columbia research."

The road ahead

As a result of Dr. Jessell's research, the potential exists to create interventional strategies to treat and cure neurodegenerative diseases such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's Disease) and Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), where a problem with the circuit connection between the sensory neurons and the motor neurons prevents people's minds and bodies from reacting properly to external stimuli. The ability to restore movement in patients with spinal cord injury or paralysis is another pursuit that will be aided by the research that Canada's Gairdner Foundation has so deservedly recognized.

For Dr. Jessell, an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Center, Fellow of the Royal Society of London, Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and co-recipient of the 2008 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience, this is a busy time indeed. As co-director of Columbia's Mind Brain and Behavior Initiative (MBBI), he is planning its impending public launch.

"It's a whirlwind of activity these days," he says, "but it's all going very well. The degree of clarity and focus in terms of the programs planned in the Greene Science Center is excellent. Recruitment of people, engagement of ideas, fundraising, it's all happening now – it is a great time to be involved in neuroscience at Columbia."

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Mark Churchland, Ph.D., Wins 2012 NIH Director's New Innovator Award

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced that Mark Churchland, Ph.D., assistant professor of neuroscience at Columbia, who is affiliated with the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, the David Mahoney Center for Brain and Behavior Research, and the Grossman Center for the Statistics of Mind, has been named a winner of the 2012 NIH Director's New Innovator Award for his research into the primate motor system.

The New Innovator award initiative, established in 2007, supports young investigators with the intent of enabling highly innovative research. The awards are funded by the NIH's Common Fund and are intended to support "visionary science that exhibits the potential to transform scientific fields and speed the translation of research into improved health."

In his research, Dr. Churchland, a 2012 Searle Scholar who came to Columbia last year from Stanford University, has shown that the brain undertakes complex processes in directing how the body's movements are initiated, controlled, and completed.

Reflex redux

"Your brain, and the neurons within it, respond to external stimuli such as a friend's face or voice," he says. "Similarly, your brain has a direct influence on your muscles. Yet most of the brain's activity is neither a reflex-like response nor an immediate command for movement. Your brain sustains and generates its own internal activity, and this is at the heart of the remarkable feats it can accomplish."

According to Dr. Churchland, key internal events can remain in motion long after the stimulus that prompted them, and may be present for some time before overt movement begins. For example, you may see a cupcake sitting on a counter and think to reach for it, but first you might want to decide whether it belongs to anyone or whether you should pass it by for a more nutritious snack. The impulse to reach for it, then, is suspended until the proper time. There are many cases in life where the brain must internally decide on a course of action, and then choose the right moment to execute that action.

"I want to determine what classes of rules (i.e., what dynamics) govern the evolution of this internally generated activity," says Dr. Churchland, "and how those dynamics subserve intelligent behavior."

To address such questions, his research focuses on the neural dynamics of movement generation. According to Dr. Churchland, there are three advantages to focusing on the motor system:
  • Its output can be carefully quantified, and the key neural pathways are known.
  • It provides a paradigmatic example of internally generated activity since only a minority of motor control is reflex-based – most movement depends upon the internal generation of complex patterns of activity that will eventually be sent to the spinal cord and muscles.
  • A better understanding of the motor system in general, and internal pattern generation in particular, is likely to be critical to the treatment of motor disorders such as Parkinson's and to the engineering of neuro-prosthetic devices that can aid those with paralysis.

Future state

His research, begun at Stanford, continues at Columbia, where the award will be put to good use.

"We have many questions for which we're still looking for answers," he says. "Questions such as, How are internal dynamics initiated when a reach begins, or when you start to walk? How are dynamics terminated when the reach ends or you stop walking? How does the brain ensure, during movement planning, that neural dynamics begin at the right 'initial state'? What is the relationship between the patterns of neural activity generated by the cortex and the patterns of muscle activity produced by the spinal cord? This award will allow us to try and answer these fundamental questions."

The NIH Director's New Innovator Award addresses two important goals: stimulating highly innovative research and supporting promising new investigators. Recipients are those who propose highly innovative projects that have the potential for unusually high impact. Though Dr. Churchland may technically be in the category of "new investigators" (despite his many papers and achievements to date), he has an exceptional pedigree. Both of his parents are noted philosophers at the University of California San Diego operating at the edge between the mind and the brain (his mother was a 1991 MacArthur Fellow), and his sister is also a neuroscientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

In addition, Dr. Churchland's wife, Clarissa Waites, Ph.D., is also a scientist at Columbia with a joint appointment in the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology and the Department of Neuroscience, and he reports that both his daughters "think neuroscience is cool and like to play with frogs."

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"Split" Decision: Michael Shadlen, M.D., Ph.D., Opts to Move East

You have decided to read this article, or at least this first sentence. Perhaps you have then decided to keep reading. There are any number of reasons why you made these decisions. It could be that you've heard of Michael Shadlen. It could be that you're extremely curious about MBBI. It could be the sheer quality of the writing. We make decisions for all kinds of reasons. Michael Shadlen has made his reputation by researching how it is that we make decisions. And now he's bringing his exceptional work to Columbia University.

Dr. Shadlen – he's a neurologist who was chief resident at Stanford University Medical Center from 1991-1992 and received his Ph.D. in neurobiology in 1985 from the University of California – joined the University of Washington's Department of Physiology and Biophysics in 1995 and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. In 2009, he was honored by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Department of Neuroscience, and the Kavli Institute for Brain Sciences at Columbia University with the W. Alden Spencer Award in recognition of his outstanding research.

Why then, did he decide to move across the country to continue his research at Columbia?

"I'm excited to have the opportunity to work with people who are experts at the cellular/molecular level," he says. "I think my research will evolve in lots of ways through collaborations with people involved in MBBI. The tools they have invented there to fix circuits and manipulate them – they're magicians!"

What is decision-making?

There's nothing magical about the discoveries that Dr. Shadlen has made – they are the result of dedicated work and careful analysis. As he has written, "A decision is a deliberative process that leads one to commit to a categorical proposition or plan of action." From a neuroscience lens, Dr. Shadlen has been studying neurons in the association cortex of the brain that transform information from the sensory cortex to give rise to interpretations, decisions, and plans for behavior.

"I work at a high level of the nervous system," he says. "How humans make decisions. I believe that decision-making is a model system for understanding principles of higher cognition in general. In decision-making we use information in a contingent fashion and in a flexible time frame – in other words, we don't necessarily use information as soon as it's received. We weigh the legitimacy of the input and consider alternatives."

This, he notes, is different from purely reactive neurological responses; the mechanisms involved in decision making are probably crucial to much of what we refer to as cognition. This suggests that the more we learn about how these processes work, the better we will be positioned to figure out how best to treat people with neurological and psychiatric conditions that affect cognition and higher brain function.

"By elucidating the principles of cognitive neuroscience employed in decision-making," says Dr. Shadlen, "we hope some day to be able to help patients with disorders such as schizophrenia and autism that impede higher cognitive functions and affect personality, ideation, volition, and awareness."

How it works–Why it doesn't

To be sure, he cautions, translational applications of his research may be as much as 20 years in the future. But with the opportunity to talk with people at Columbia involved in stem cell research and integrative approaches to neuroscience, it's something to strive for.

"I'm driven by a desire to improve the lives of people with neurological and psychiatric disorders," he says. "We don't know enough about these diseases and disorders yet, but as I gain knowledge through my research I think in those terms: 'If this is how it works, what happens when it doesn't work?'"

According to MBBI co-director Thomas Jessell, "As a card-carrying neurologist, Mike understands what happens when circuits fail to function, how information is incorrectly interpreted. Columbia is very strong in molecular/cellular matters and is an emerging strength in cognition, memory, and decision-making. Mike is a bundle of energy and ideas, has firm convictions about how to approach these, and is eager and keen to engage himself in other people's work. He represents the future and we're very lucky to have him here."

"Ultimately," says Dr. Shadlen, "I'm attracted to the vision of MBBI. I originally wanted to become a physician after reading The Plague by Albert Camus. It's important that the work we do be for a purpose, and that purpose involves people. Here I can do my research and perhaps take it in new directions, understanding that we're involved in something that is not just academic but humanistic as well.'

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Meghan Fay, Director of Development, Mind Brain Behavior Initiative 

O: 212.851.7893 | C: 917.783.7917 | F: 212.851.7784 | mbbi@columbia.edu