By Jack Feuer
Published Jan 1, 2016 8:00 AM
We have always pondered the mysteries of the mind. But for the most part, the brain’s secrets have been beyond our grasp. But now, for the first time, we are beginning to unlock those mysteries. And the implications for all of us are extraordinary.
Captain Kirk was wrong. Space isn’t the final frontier. It is the human brain — inner space — that is truly the greatest mystery in the universe. But a true understanding of the brain has eluded our greatest thinkers for thousands of years. Within every human skull reside 100 billion nerve cells making 100 trillion connections, and this complexity has confounded researchers — until now.
We are in the midst of a Golden Age of neuroscience, with advances fueled by technology and genetics emerging at an astounding pace. Not only have we begun to systematically map the undiscovered territory that is the brain, we also are making scientific breakthroughs almost seem routine. New understanding of and treatments for brain-related conditions and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, autism and depression are on the horizon or already here. And yet we have barely scratched the surface.
Twenty-five years ago, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed the ’90s the “Decade of the Brain.” Many discoveries were indeed made during the next 10 years, but they pale in comparison to what we are witnessing today. In 2013, President Barack Obama announced the launch of the Brain Initiative, with the aim of revolutionizing brain science. The sweeping initiative, often compared to the equally ambitious Human Genome Project, enlists dozens of technology companies and academic institutions, including UCLA.
“The ’90s were dubbed the Decade of the Brain. I think it’s telling that we’ve dubbed the 21st century the Century of the Brain,” says UCLA Distinguished Professor of Biological Chemistry Lawrence Zipursky, who serves as director of the Neuroscience Theme in the David Geffen School of Medicine and chair of UCLA Neuroscience, a committee that coordinates neuroscience research initiatives across the campus. “It reflects this gradual appreciation of how complex the problems are in understanding the brain. It’s an extraordinary frontier, with wonderful tools that just get better and better. We’re at the beginning of the beginning.”
A Long Backstory
The current state of neuroscience notwithstanding, scientific study of the brain has a long history.
Ancient history, actually.
The first written account of the brain is contained within an ancient Egyptian medical text on trauma called the Edwin Smith Papyrus (named after the 19th-century Egyptologist who bought it) and is thought to date back to 1600-1700 B.C. Roughly 1,200 years later, Hippocrates declared that the brain is where intelligence is located. Plato and Aristotle also weighed in, the former contending that the brain is where thinking resides and the latter saying the heart is where the mind is.
It would be another 2,000 years or so before 17th-century English physician Thomas Willis, considered the father of neuroscience, first used the word “neurology,” and it wasn’t until 1878 that the first Ph.D. with the word “psychology” in its title was awarded, to Granville Stanley Hall at Harvard University. Hall went on to become the first president of the American Psychological Association.
Science kept at it, making discoveries apace about human behavior and the brain. “For about 70 years, basic neuroscientists have studied the normal function of the brain and disorders that affect it, and that’s been tens of thousands of neuroscientists,” notes pioneering neuroscientist and UCLA Vice Chancellor of Health Sciences John Mazziotta. “There is an enormous amount of information ready to be brought to bear on disorders of the brain.”
Advances in technology have enabled scientists to study the nervous system and the brain with greater and greater precision.
“The brain is almost the definition of Big Data,” says Kelsey Martin, interim dean of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and one of the world’s leading experts on learning and memory. “We are able to record from large numbers of neurons in the brain, and we can now begin to make sense of this information, thanks to the development of computational tools for analyzing very large data sets.
“Another component is the advances made in human genetics, which have allowed the scientific community to investigate how aspects of human behavior driven by brain function are linked to genetic factors. While the molecular biology revolution of a half-century ago took us a long way, recent advances in optics, chemistry and large-scale recording technologies allow us to now look in real time at how neural circuits function. These new tools and technologies are what make this a Golden Age for neuroscience.”
Powerful Present, Promising Future
An area of scientific inquiry as far-ranging as neuroscience — incorporating such disparate fields as cognitive science, biology, chemistry, engineering, linguistics, mathematics, medicine, psychology, psychiatry and even physics — demands an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach. It is, in fact, tailor-made for an institution like UCLA.
The university’s leadership goes back to the founding of the UCLA Brain Research Institute (BRI) in 1959. BRI unites neuroscientists across the campus, helping stoke the fires of medical discovery. For example, scientists at the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA work with members of the BRI and other research and clinical programs to help turn technological breakthroughs into treatments. As one of the first research institutions to use PET scans to detect changes in the brain before patients develop symptoms, UCLA has made great strides in understanding illnesses such as Alzheimer’s.
“Using imaging, we can detect brain changes indicative of Alzheimer’s years before onset in rare, inherited forms of the disease, paving the way to test experimental therapies,” says Mazziotta.
In all, 500 UCLA scientists and scholars — more than in any other discipline — work on brain science in Westwood. “We’re linked to physics, chemistry, the [UCLA] California NanoSystems Institute, and basic and clinical neuroscientists on the same campus,” says Zipursky. “UCLA has had decades of collegiality, and that will become more and more important as neuroscience becomes increasingly team-based.”
Indeed, neuroscience research in Westwood is broad and deep. UCLA is opening new avenues into the study of what memory is and of how mirror neurons shape our brand preferences. Among other initiatives, the university is forging links with public education in the area of brain science, including the implementation of a UCLA program in which high school students become “neuroscientists for a day.”
The university has been a leader in brain imaging for almost a half-century. The UCLA Brain Injury Research Center was among the first in the nation to research post-traumatic stress disorder. The UCLA Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program is a pivotal player in the effort to diagnose and treat sports concussions.
Most recently, thanks to a generous gift from Jim Easton ’59, UCLA established the Easton Labs for brain health. Their creation will include three new specialized units that will align neuroscience and engineering research in areas such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of neurodegenerative disease, sports and military-related head injuries, and more effective helmets for football players and members of the military.
As the Golden Age progresses, neuroscience will transform society: Artificial limbs controlled by thought. Enhanced cognition. Drugs precisely targeted to individuals. Understanding of how external forces like poverty affect the brain.
And a looming new responsibility.
“Our brain is not just a reflection of our genetics but is also very much a reflection of our environment,” says Martin. “We have a social responsibility to make sure that environment is one in which human beings flourish.”
Dan Geschwind: Autism's Auteur
More than 3.5 million people in the U.S. battle with some form of autism. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 out of every 100 people worldwide suffers from autism spectrum disorder. So the search is on for a better understanding of, and new treatments for, this devastating disease.
Few engaged in that effort can match the research being done at UCLA, particularly state-of-the-science study of the genetic cause of autism. As far back as the mid-20th century, UCLA was among the first major universities to engage in active research in the brain disorder. Today, that vital effort is led by renowned researcher Daniel Geschwind, Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Distinguished Professor of neurology, psychiatry and human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine and co-founder and director of UCLA’s Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART).
“Dan is one of the pioneers of today’s serious molecular analysis of autism, not only in terms of genetics, but also of its implications for biology,” says Steve Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
Thomas R. Insel, who recently stepped down as head of the National Institute of Mental Health and is now part of Google’s life sciences team, says what makes Geschwind unique is that he is not only leading the study of the genomics of autism but is also creating new models of community engagement that have broadened the scope of autism research.
One such model: the collaboration between UCLA and Special Needs Network, a South Los Angeles nonprofit that is addressing issues of autism and related developmental disabilities. A $10-million grant from the National Institutes of Health supports the work of Geschwind’s research team in studying the genetic causes of autism in the community.
“Genetics varies by ethnicity and ancestry, so you want to understand it in as diverse a population as possible,” Geschwind explains. “I’m a geneticist with a laboratory, and it’s easy to stay isolated. But from a genetics standpoint, it’s critical to reach out.” He adds that in the future, CART will also be reaching out to other communities.
In addition, Geschwind helped create the Autism and Genetics Research Exchange (AGRE), a DNA biobank that collects samples from a broad spectrum of people with autism and makes those samples widely available to the research community, now as a program of Autism Speaks.
Geschwind’s impact is great on both peers and patients. Says Insel, “He is changing the culture of science and the way that we do genomics research.”
— Claudia Luther