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At roughly three pounds, with its complex microcircuitry of billions of neurons, the human brain centrally controls every aspect of the body.

And while researchers from biologists to psychologists have claimed breakthroughs in understanding brain function on a myriad of levels, scientists are still challenged by core mysteries of what exactly goes on inside the gray matter and how precisely how brain function translates into human behavior.

A new push to untether scientists from their disparate disciplines and join them on the path to a complete and holistic understanding of the brain has the University of Arizona anticipating new breakthroughs at every level, from basic cellular biology to the development of memories, from the causes of devastating neurological diseases and ultimately the nature of consciousness.

Broadening the scope of brain research by throwing off the constraints of traditional academic disciplines and uniting neurobiologists, psychologists, linguists, speech and hearing scientists, psychiatrists and cognitive scientists under a single mission is the goal of the new School of Mind, Brain and Behavior.

The scientists say they can no longer expect to make the necessary progress in understanding how the brain works by keeping the fields segmented and denying the type of interdisciplinary communication and partnerships that hold the most exciting opportunities.

Approaching the brain’s “grand challenges” thematically instead of piecemeal is a sea change in academia, says Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the UA’s College of Letters, Arts and Science, and will also help promote the future of research by creating new graduate and undergraduate programs, integrating the various subjects into one curriculum.

“The real mission of the school is to bring together what had been separated departments and programs, all of which have something to do with the brain, the mind and behavior, and bring them under a common interactive and administrative structure, so that synergies between these elements are much more possible, that roadblocks are lowered, so we can move much more efficiently and quickly between basic science and translational research, and of course to educate students, undergraduate and graduate and bring the interdisciplinary collaboration that the future needs,” says Al Kaszniak, head of the psychology department and one of the school’s development team members.

The School of Mind, Brain and Behavior focuses on interdisciplinary collaboration, innovative research and translational, application-driven studies.

INTERDISCIPLINARY COLLABORATION

Dr. Joaquin Ruiz

Dr. Joaquin Ruiz, dean of UA’s College of Letters, Arts and Science, and one of the proponents of the School’s formation.

The impetus for creating a new school to unite various researchers who study the brain came from faculty members seeking to help streamline the university.

“We’re banking on the future power of having people who do disparate things being together in a configuration where they have the opportunity to collaborate in research,” says John Hildebrand, head of the department of neuroscience. “I’m a big believer of putting different intellects to bear on the same problem.

Where administrators see cost savings, the researchers see a new, wide-open field that positions the University of Arizona alone among its peers in uniting so many different disciplines.

“Universities tend to be very settled in their ways and stable and not willing to think of radical reconfigurations,” Hildebrand says. “It’s extraordinary that people in this enterprise have been willing to give up their comfort zone and try something radically different.”

Despite being spurred by devastating state budget cuts, the university’s administratively mandates transformation process did have some hidden benefits. Absent the need to save money, the school might never have been proposed.

“There’s an interesting hook here that’s going to be really critical in the faculty and students starting to work more intensely together, being more bold about the questions they allow themselves to ask because they have colleagues at different levels of analysis,” says Carol Barnes, a professor of psychology and neurology and the director of the UA’s McKnight Brain Institute.

Hildebrand describes his department as probing the “nuts and bolts” of the nervous system, providing a “rock solid basis for the much more complex issues pursued by our colleagues in psychology and cognitive science.”

“Whether its disorders of speech and language or how we recognize friends and enemies or why people behave the way they do in the stock market, unless you understand how the brain works, you can’t really understand any of that,” he says. “What I hope is that getting neurobiologists, people who study molecules and cells, together with people who think about the big issues will stimulate both sides of that interaction.”

The “nuts and bolts” biologists will be able to provide a better framework for colleagues from psychology, who in turn will bring a new perspective and suggestions about different questions to examine biologically.

“We have people interested in the brain at every level from the biology of the cells to the consequences for society. Sharing what they need with each other is going to be very helpful to the mindset of the future to figure out these questions,” Hildebrand says.

Dr. Al Kaszniak

Dr. Al Kaszniak, one of the School’s development team members.

The collaboration promises to fill in the gaps and bring more sets of eyes to research projects, says Al Kaszniak, head of the department of psychology.

“We’re looking for a detailed understanding of how brain systems operate, from the cellular level to the system level,” Kaszniak says. “By bringing people together who are doing basic work at the bench and people who are doing whole animal or human studies, you’re going to be able to discover things that individual investigators would fail to detect.”

The new school is more than a simple academic reorganization. In addition to working on a new undergraduate and graduate curriculum, the school’s faculty are participating in shared and common talks, colloquia and seminars.

“This is very critical,” Kaszniak says. “You can’t simply administratively group these different departments and programs and expect that by just having done that there’s going to be a greater yield. You have to create opportunities for the faculty to interact in meaningful ways.”

By aligning the researchers together under one umbrella of brain research, the university is also hoping to hit a sweet spot in terms of research funding, Kaszniak says.

Both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, who together provide the bulk of research funding to the faculty who make up the school, are trending toward favoring interdisciplinary projects and the same type of wide-reaching proposals the School of Mind, Brain and Behavior expects to generate.

“Right now it is a field that is incredibly complicated and it’s broken up into so many components,” says Ruiz. “A school like this one, that has the behaviorists as well as the people who are trying to understand the brain from a molecular and cellular perspective, is a different way to approach the problems and one that I think will bring greater success.”

INNOVATIVE RESEARCH

Under the broad umbrella of the School of Mind, Brain & Behavior at the University of Arizona are two new graduate interdisciplinary programs in neuroscience and cognitive science. Side-by-side, these two point to the questions the school’s scientists say will guide upcoming breakthroughs in brain research.

“Certainly if you talk to any biologist, the brain is the final frontier,” says Joaquin Ruiz, Dean of the College of Science where the school is housed. “What we understand about the brain today is orders of magnitude greater than what we knew even 10 years ago. And we’re starting to understand all sorts of issues that were just mysteries 10 years ago. It’s really, really exciting to have the tools at hand, which we didn’t have before, to try and answer the questions.

John Hildebrand, head of the department of neuroscience, says the most rapidly developing area of biological science is the molecular and cellular study of the brain’s functions.

“There’s never been anything like the explosion of brain science at that nuts and bolts level,” he says. “Within a decade, most of that will be understood.”

The operation of the hundreds of billions of nerve cells in the human brain – and the failures in those nerve cells that create diseases and disorders – is the core question for neurobiologists, and one that has ramifications for every level of brain science.

“We are very far along in understanding how nerve cells do what they do,” Hildebrand says. “This toolkit – all the nuts and bolts – is going to be scrutinized and understood to a very large degree. The huge challenge is understanding how they combine in very complicated structures to generate all the things people do.”

The genetic basis for brain function and disease is another research area ripe for exploration.

“There’s no shortage of mysteries about the brain,” says Al Kaszniak, head of the department of psychology. “At the very basic science level, there is a lot of interesting work having to do with particular genes that code either for proteins expressed when neurons make connections with each other in a learning situation, or genes that code for things that modify the expression of other genes or particular neuro-transmitter.”

Genetic research has the prospects for developing particular types of interventions, Kaszniak says, especially as scientists begin to understand better how different genes for brain and behavioral disorders are represented differently across a population.

“We know a lot more now about basic mechanisms in how cells communicate with each other, in how connections are formed in cells that are the basis of memory,” he says. “One very important area is can we take some of that neurobiology and look at the extent to which anomalies in that may help explain particular disorders that have been difficult in finding an effective way to deal with those problems.”

Carol Barnes, a professor of psychology and neurology and the director of the UA’s McKnight Brain Institute, sees huge challenges in understanding how and why some people age so successfully and others succumb to diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“I think in the next decade we’re going to understand a lot more about what predisposes certain people to being successful and we’re possibly going to be able to manipulate those pathways in the brain to going to that optimal road,” she says. “If we understand that, we may be able to prolong the time in which we’re all functional.”

Barnes also looks forward to scientists reaching a deeper understanding of how memories function and influence behavior, and how genes interact with environmental influences to guide our actions.

“One thing that excites people about the brain is the idea that we can actually understand the roots of our behavior,” Barnes says. “If we understand the roots of our behavior, we can understand why interactions can go well or why interactions can turn destructive, why marriage goes wrong or right, or why people are aggressive and conflicts occur.”

Sara Burke

Sara Burke, a graduate student in neuroscience, performs research at the UA Memory and Aging Lab under Dr. Carol Barnes.

“It has really important ramifications for education and how you train the next generation of people how to interact well, how to be creative,” she says.

APPLICATION-DRIVEN STUDIES

Placing laboratory scientists side-by-side with clinical investigators will open new avenues for research, but should also change the nature of how those discoveries produce and drive helpful and important changes in society.

“Our hope is that we can move discovery from basic science to application much more rapidly than in the past and that we will have an opportunity here at Arizona to be a real leader,” Kaszniak says.

The notion of the School of Mind, Brain and Behavior as an incubator always focused outward, on how the research can actually translate into improving people’s lives, was one of the primary motivators from the beginning.

“I’m in the game to understand the world around me and demystify it,” says Hildebrand. “I’m very interested in how sensual stimuli, how the ones that are meaningful, are encoded in our brain. It’s a very big and important issue that’s just now available to us.”

Focusing on the products of brain function will lead to some understanding of how social interactions go awry when people suffer defects from injury and disease. Ultimately, the goals are to right those defects that modify and interfere with normal brain function, Hildebrand says.

“For the mechanisms underlying social interaction, the emotional response you have when you see the face of someone who means something to you, someone you despise or someone you care for, something happens in your brain. What does that mean? How does that happen? What’s going on inside your brain?”

To that end, aging and age-related disorders and acquired language disorders are major areas of emphasis in the school.

“We have people who are studying very early development in infants of language The kinds of things we’re learning about infant language development may have implications for retraining people who have lost language following a stroke,” Kaszniak says.

Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists have long been concerned with people’s emotional difficulties, like anxiety and depression.

“The kind of approaches we have for helping these people have grown out of theories that grew up some time ago, before much of any understanding of the brain, or out of empirical psychiatry,” Kaszniak says. “It may be possible to approach questions of how to best be of help to people who have these kinds of difficulties by taking several steps back. What do we know about how emotion is organized in the brain? What is the interaction between emotion and cognition? This could tell us about new ways of designing interventions that have a better chance of being helpful.”

Additionally, larger-scale genetic studies on memory could root out those genes that create problems for creating, storing or accessing memories, and suggest potential therapies or interventions.

“Knowing what the genetic codes are at a very basic science level lets you know what you should be looking for,” Kaszniak says.

Despite their optimism about the new school’s potential, the faculty members at its core say the university’s immediate budget problems, and the two decades of declining financial support from the state, could limit the successes.

“Our ability to do what we dream of doing is much less limited by our own motivation and willingness to work hard than it is by the Draconian problem we have with finances now,” Hildebrand says. “All of the stuff we want to do is going to depend on the state somehow arresting its downward spiral, which is bringing us down with it. We’re doing the best we can in really bad circumstances.”

Published originally in two parts, on Sept. 24 and Oct. 2, 2009 in Tech News Arizona.

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Eric Swedlund is a writer, photographer and editor living in Tucson, Arizona. His music writing has appeared regularly in the Tucson Weekly, Phoenix New Times, East Bay Express, The Rumpus and Souciant Magazine.

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