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Unlocking the Mind's Mysteries: Georgia State neuroscientists work to expand the understanding of the brain

Monday, April 27, 2009 – Jeremy Craig, University Relations

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Space may be the final frontier of the external universe, but the brain’s incredible complexity represents an inner frontier of its own. It is responsible for the command and control of all animals — including humans — but its mechanisms, physiology and behavioral patterns inspire questions that scientists and philosophers have puzzled over for centuries.

How does the brain work? How does it manifest behaviors? How can we help people overcome disorders ranging from autism to post traumatic stress disorder to Alzheimer’s disease? And ultimately, what is the mind, and how do we truly know what we know?

Many among Georgia State’s faculty have taken a lead role in seeking to uncover these mysteries.

Through the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) and the university’s own cross-disciplinary Neuroscience Institute, these scientists have helped to make Georgia State one of the leading institutions in neuroscience research and build Atlanta as a premier location in the field.

Discoveries and research

In 1999, the National Science Foundation and the Georgia Research Alliance committed over $53 million dollars to fund the CBN through 2009. Headquartered at Georgia State, the CBN is a consortium that brings together several local institutions, including Emory University, Georgia Tech, Morehouse School of Medicine, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College and Spelman College, and fosters partnerships with organizations like Zoo Atlanta.

Through the CBN, researchers in “collaboratories” — areas focusing on topics such as reproduction, aggression, fear, memory and cognition, and affiliation — have made major discoveries and increased understanding in neuroscience.

“The CBN has spawned an excellent community of scientists across institutions, which will stay vibrant because there is true value in this endeavor,” said H. Elliott Albers, director of the CBN and Regents’ Professor of neuroscience at Georgia State.

Albers said one of the most profound discoveries of CBN researchers is that the mammalian brain can physically change, depending on social experience. At one time, it was believed that an adult mammal’s brain was not malleable.

“What we’ve shown is that if you expose an animal to different types of social experiences, you can see a pattern change in certain kinds of receptors for neurochemical signals,” Albers explained. “Now, we really don’t know what all of these patterns mean, but the idea is that when you have a certain social experience, your brain changes.

“You essentially learn from that kind of experience, and the brain does things differently in response to cues,” Albers said. “When I was a student, we were taught that once you are an adult, the brain never changed.”

Research at the CBN has yielded numerous other significant discoveries, including a new drug — currently in clinical trials — with promise in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder. A study of pain management during the lifecycle of rodents has important implications for human infants and researchers have also shed new light on obesity, autism-spectrum disorders, neurochemical transmitters and behavior, and more.

A broad base

Neuroscience is such a broad field that one discipline alone cannot endeavor to uncover the complexities of the brain.

Along with collaborating faculty in the CBN, researchers in Georgia State’s Neuroscience Institute — a spinoff from Georgia State’s Brains and Behavior Area of Focus, which emerged with CBN’s help — are drawing upon a broad range of expertise from diverse fields to break new ground in understanding the brain.

“The Neuroscience Institute is a very fluid, cross-institutional contributor to research and education which can serve as a model for how these institutes can work,” said Walter Wilczynski, director of the institute. It includes faculty from biology, chemistry, psychology, physics and astronomy, computer science, mathematics, statistics and even philosophy.

“Philosophy and neuroscience sound about as alien as two sets of creatures that you can find,” said. George Graham, professor of philosophy and a top philosopher in psychology and psychiatry. “But what’s happened in the last 20 to 30 years is that the philosophers who work on mind-related issues think of their work as inseparably connected with the work of scientists.”

Georgia State offers a master’s degree track in the relatively new field of neurophilosophy, which can lead to work at the doctoral level in neurophilosophy or neuroscience.

New fields, new opportunities

The National Science Foundation grant that helped to start the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience ends this year. But the center, and its Neuroscience Institute spinoff, will continue. Scientists in both areas will keep asking questions and seeking answers about the brain and mind.

For example, many researchers have explored negative emotions, but the CBN has received a grant from the Templeton Foundation to break ground on exploring the relatively untouched area of positive emotions.

“We’re interested in developing a neuroscience of positive emotion, and how the brain regulates things like hope,” Albers said. “Many of the things we study in neuroscience deal with negative effect, such as depression.”

Georgia State’s neuroscience leaders also hope to bring their discoveries to the public — something that could further boost Georgia’s leadership in the field and spur more development of a high-tech sector, for which the state has invested millions of dollars.

“We want to position Georgia State to support the major efforts in creating a robust biosciences industry in the state,” Wilczynski said. “For the next 20 years, this will be a major economic engine in the United States.”

Albers agrees that commercialization is vital.

“We all want the best drugs, devices and treatments available to us, but currently, as a society, we’re not doing the best things to bring those new drugs and devices to market,” he said. “We need to figure out a way to do this in a more efficient and expeditious manner.”

Albers and others have worked to bring both scientists and businesspeople together to learn about each other’s fields in order to bring innovations out of laboratories and to the public.

“There’s a real need to have academic programs where people can learn about both business and science in a meaningful way,” he said.

For more about the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, visit www.cbn-atl.org. More information about the Georgia State University Neuroscience Institute is available at http://neuroscience.gsu.edu.

Areas of Exploration

Computational Neuroscience: The brain can be considered, in its own way, an organic computer. Georgia State researchers in departments such as computer science, physics, mathematics and statistics are examining the computational rules that the nervous system uses to calculate movement as well as brain pattern activity. This has implications for further research that could lead toward improved robotics, brain-computer interfaces and prosthetic devices.

“Faculty in these departments are all talking to each other to explore the computational processing of complex phenomena,” Wilczynski said.

Neuromics: For some time, scientists have been mapping the genome — the collection of all genes in an organism that help to define it. Neuromics is a similar study except of neurons — the basic cellular units of the nervous system — attempting to understand these components and how they interact. But the field goes beyond merely cataloging neurons. It draws upon biology, computer science and bioinformatics to see how scientists can represent these neurons, manipulate this data, and make it searchable. Through this research at Georgia State’s Center for Neuromics, led by Paul Katz, scientists hope to model the nervous system to build increasingly precise cellular wiring diagrams of the brain.

Neurophilosophy: From the outside looking in, one of the most unlikely pairings in the field is seemingly that of neurophilosophy. But researchers are making new inroads into the empirical study of philosophy, bringing life’s moral, ethical and existential questions, which humans have been exploring for millennia, into the realm of cognitive science.

Social Behavior: As with their counterparts in the CBN, Neuroscience Institute researchers are examining the brain’s role in behaviors such as reproduction, aggression, stress and disorders — with scholars in psychology, biology, chemistry and other disciplines bringing their expertise to the task. Of particular interest to Georgia State researchers are autism-spectrum disorders, social stress, and social anxiety, as well as links between the nervous system, the endocrine system and behavior.