Unlocking the mysteries of the brain

By Eduardo R. Macagno

This weekend 30,000 visitors will arrive at the San Diego Convention Center for the world's largest and most influential yearly gathering of neuroscientists. It's an event unlikely to be noticed in our community beyond the hotels and restaurants in the Gaslamp District. But the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience is really a unique happening within our region, a kind of Woodstock for neuroscientists around the world who gather with great enthusiasm to share results on the latest advances in the understanding of the brain and nervous system.

Over the past three decades, neuroscientists in San Diego, one of the world's leading centers of neuroscience research, and elsewhere have had much to get excited about. We've made extraordinary progress toward understanding how our brains and nervous systems grow and how they process information. We've built new imaging tools that allow us to actually see the brain as it thinks and responds to stimuli. We've developed new genetic probes to determine, more precisely than ever before, what genes are critical to the development and operation of our nervous systems.

But despite our collective success in compiling a rather impressive storehouse of scientific information on the workings of the brain and nervous system, reflected in the 16,000 presentations scheduled for this week's Society for Neuroscience meeting, we haven't done as good a job of explaining to the public what it is we do and why it's important to society.

Next month, California voters will be asked to decide on a ballot proposal, Proposition 71, that will give scientists in our state the constitutional right to work with human embryonic stem cells - cells that can develop into many different cell types and that have the potential to be used to replace diseased or damaged cells in the brain, nervous system, heart and other tissues and organs.

This ballot measure also will authorize the state to issue $3 billion in state bonds over the next 10 years for stem cell research. Such a move would surely make California the leader in stem cell research, a field presently hampered in the United States by restrictions on expenditures of federal funds for research on human embryonic cells, but critically important for neuroscientists and others seeking to understand the basic biological mechanisms by which unspecialized cells are transformed into specialized cells, such as heart or brain tissue, that make us who we are.

Is it a worthy idea? Will the $3 billion investment be a boon to our state's future economy, allowing biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to produce new products and therapies based on stem cell research? Or are the potential medical therapies that could result from stem cell research for Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, diabetes and other diseases over the next decade too far in the future for a state still in fiscal crisis?

Those are some of the questions that Californians will have to answer when they go to the polls Nov. 2. Although their ballots on Proposition 71 may be guided more by political party affiliation and personal beliefs about the use of human fetal tissue than science, it's clear that the public wants and needs to know more about what we do in order to make informed decisions in our increasingly technology-based society. Yet as neuroscience and other scientific disciplines have grown more specialized, a widening communications gulf has developed between scientists and the public. It's important that we bridge that gap.

Next month, the Division of Biological Sciences at UCSD will launch a lecture, television and educational Web site series called "Grey Matters," featuring prominent San Diego neuroscientists discussing the latest developments in stem cells, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease and other aspects of neuroscience research in language accessible to the public. This two-year series, televised by UCSD-TV, is being financed by a grant from Amylin Pharmaceuticals Inc. of San Diego.

In a separate effort that should lead to improvements in the design of buildings and living spaces through the incorporation of what we have learned about human brain function and development, neuroscientists here and across the nation have joined architects in a dialogue to apply knowledge about how the brain perceives space to help design school rooms that enhance learning, offices that are more conducive to thinking and hospital rooms that promote mental, as well as physical, recovery.

Last year, the American Institute of Architects established in San Diego the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, "an international center for interdisciplinary activities that build intellectual bridges between brain researchers and those who design places for human use." Those of us involved in this new effort believe the communication between these two seemingly disparate, but very closely linked, disciplines will result not only in new architectural designs, but also in new avenues of neuroscience research. If we want to design spaces that provide comfort to Alzheimer's patients, who may forget being in the same room a day or an hour before, for example, we must first determine whether the brains of Alzheimer's patients perceive space in ways different from normal brains. In other words, how do we compensate for the comfort of familiarity in a person without recent memories?

In another cross-disciplinary effort, neurobiologists in UCSD's Division of Biological Sciences, Division of Social Sciences and School of Medicine earlier this year established the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind. The new research center is funded by a $7.5-million endowment from The Kavli Foundation of Oxnard to explore the relationship between the brain's cellular makeup and the resulting behaviors of the mind. This center will eventually include researchers from more than 20 academic disciplines, including neuroscience, biology, cognitive science, psychology and medicine at UCSD and neighboring institutions. It will address such questions as how genetics influences behavior, how brains repair themselves and the cellular and biochemical mechanisms of memory.

Those are just a few examples of the efforts engaged in by San Diego's diverse neuroscience community. An array of similarly creative programs to provide linkages and communicate with others outside our field is under way at the Burnham Institute, the Neurosciences Institute, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Scripps Research Institute, in addition to a dozen of the region's pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies with neuroscience interests.

With this rather incredible concentration of neuroscientists, it's not surprising that San Diego has become a mecca for research on the brain and mind, as well as a magnet for creative ideas and industries capable of bringing new therapies and drugs for brain and nervous system disorders to the marketplace. Our collective strength in neuroscience has made the graduate neuroscience program at UCSD No. 1 in the nation, according to the National Research Council. And through that program, we're providing our local biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies with the cream of the crop of the next generation of scientists, who promise to bring fresh ideas for innovation and start new industries to help keep our region's economy strong.

San Diego's community of world-renowned neuroscientists is clearly one of the hidden jewels of our region. And we intend in the coming years to make it a more visible part of our own local communities.