Summer 2017

Message From the President: Expanding the Boundaries of Neuroscience

In my last column, I talked about the importance of fostering a diverse community of scientists and physicians in order to ensure the best opportunities for successful research in our field. Now, I want to talk to you about a different kind of diversity — scientific diversity in neuroscience. Our success in advancing the field is predicated on our ability to expand beyond narrow approaches and fields of interest and embrace the spectacular interdisciplinary nature of modern neuroscience.

The brain is by far the most complex organ in the body. The analogy with cancer is instructive, where the goal is to identify which of about 20,000 genes contribute to risk for cancer by controlling hundreds of thousands of cell signals and how that genetic risk is influenced by environmental exposures. Conquering brain diseases entails this same molecular complexity overlaid with the brain’s thousands (perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands) of different types of cells and the vast numbers of intricate connections they use to communicate to underlie brain function.

Neuroscience thus poses a uniquely formidable task in biomedical research, which requires a uniquely broad approach to integrate massive amounts of information across the molecular, cellular, circuit, and systems levels. This interdisciplinary collaboration is a driving force in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, which seeks to create new tools and technologies to aid neuroscientists in better studying brain circuits. We need to focus similarly on novel molecular-cellular approaches to understand the genetic, epigenetic, and other cell-autonomous processes that control these circuits. The unparalleled opportunities in brain science — the last frontier of modern medicine — are bringing together the best and brightest minds in science, mathematics, and engineering to move the field forward. 

Presidential Special Lectures: Exploring the Interdisciplinary Nature of the Field

The increasingly interdisciplinary and global nature of neuroscience is reflected in both the research and the attendees at SfN’s annual meeting each year. Not only will you find neuroscientists at the meeting, but computer scientists, chemists, physicists, bioengineers, and others from countries around the world can be found walking the poster floor.

This was top of mind for me when choosing the Neuroscience 2017 Presidential Special Lecturers. While my four selected speakers all study the nervous system, their work primarily takes advantage of exciting discoveries in other disciplines to reveal new insights into brain function in health and disease.

Jeffrey I. Gordon, MD, the Dr. Robert J. Glaser Distinguished University Professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is a gastroenterologist studying the influence of the gut microbiome on organ function, including its influence on the brain and behavior. There are more bacterial cells in a person’s body than there are human cells, and only recently has it been possible to demonstrate the broad implications of this discovery. Gordon and his team have led the field in demonstrating the significant impact that each person’s bacteria exert on all organ systems — including the brain. This gut-brain connection gives new meaning to the saying, “you are what you eat,” as the microbiome is heavily influenced by diet, resulting in dramatic effects on the nervous system. Delineating the precise mechanisms underlying this influence is a major focus of current research.

An alumnus and the former PI of SfN’s Neuroscience Scholars Program, Erich D. Jarvis, PhD, is not only an outstanding researcher but a dedicated mentor to young scientists in the very program from which he once benefitted. Jarvis is currently head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics of Language at The Rockefeller University and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. His work focuses on identifying the evolutionary factors that permit humans and certain bird species to learn vocal communication. Jarvis is taking an innovative approach to this research: He co-led a four-year, multimillion-dollar effort to sequence the genome of 48 bird species and is using the data to identify genomic features — and the neural circuits they encode — that are associated with vocal learning. Beyond its implications for understanding evolution, Jarvis’s research will contribute to our understanding of vocal communication and brain function more generally.

A colleague of mine at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, Pamela Sklar, MD, PhD, is a leader in the study of genetic causes of mental illness, in particular, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Sklar serves as chair of the Department of Genetics and Genomic Sciences and is professor of genetics and genomic sciences, psychiatry, and neuroscience. In the past, technical limitations made it impossible to identify genes that confer risk for mental illness. Thanks to advances in high-throughput sequencing and bioinformatics, scientists can now sequence the entire human genome rapidly and relatively inexpensively, making it feasible to study tens and even hundreds of thousands of people and to identify those differences that associate with a specific syndrome. Using this rigorous approach, Sklar and her colleagues have been able to identify hundreds of genomic regions that contribute to the risk for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, raising the possibility for precision medicine approaches in psychiatry.

A biophysicist known for her work in developing new imaging tools, Xiaowei Zhuang, PhD, is the David B. Arnold Jr. professor of science, and professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of physics at Harvard University. She is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Zhuang and her team developed a new imaging technique — a single-molecule-based super-resolution light microscopy method called stochastic optical reconstruction microscopy, or STORM. This method allows researchers to look inside living cells and distinguish the precise location of individual molecules — including successfully differentiating molecules that are so close together that they would appear as one using traditional imaging methods. Using STORM, Zhuang’s lab has discovered previously unknown cellular structures and provided new insight into the three-dimensional spatial organization of chromatin and chromosomes in the nucleus and the molecular architecture and spatial distribution of synapses on neurons.

Neuroscience 2017: Building Collaborations

These Presidential Special Lecturers function as prime examples of the expanding breadth of neuroscience and the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations. SfN’s annual meeting delivers an unparalleled venue for forming the professional connections that can lead to partnerships across labs, scientific fields, and global borders. When you come to Neuroscience 2017 later this year, I encourage you to not only network with colleagues from your specific research area or your home country, but to also engage with peers in other disciplines and from around the world. Think about the ways in which your work overlaps or benefits one another. By building these interdisciplinary, global collaborations and taking advantage of the best and brightest minds across the entire spectrum of science, we can continue to advance the understanding of the brain and the nervous system to develop improved disease treatments and cures.