Genius: Mind, Brain, and Molecules at the 92nd Street Y

What makes someone a genius? According to Nobel Laureate Eric R. Kandel, M.D., it is a person who is a “game-changer” and who “through their work, permanently changed the way we perceive the world.” It is less about IQ and more about “drive, persistence, and creativity.” At the 92nd Street Y’s third annual 7 Days of Genius in Manhattan, four eminent scientists, arguably geniuses themselves, discussed historical geniuses of the mind, brain, and molecules. The three speakers included two members of the Dana Alliance, Larry W. Swanson, Ph.D., and Thomas M. Jessell, Ph.D., as well as Robert Michels, M.D. Kandel, also a Dana Alliance member, moderated the event.

Michels, of Weill Cornell College, focused on a genius of the mind, Sigmund Freud. When he was 30, Freud moved from a traditional lab to outpatient neurology and psychology practice, and soon after began developing psychoanalysis, the first cognitive psychology. By listening to his patients and trying to understand their unconscious thoughts, he deviated from the usual method of diagnosis, which focused on understanding brain abnormalities. He was also one of the first people to look at transference, the relationship between the patient and therapist, an important factor still considered today. These new ways of thinking helped form the modern understanding of psychotherapy.

santiago ramon y cajal

Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawing of a Purkinje cell. He said the cell’s shape reminded him of a grape arbor. Photo courtesy of Russ Dewey,

Swanson, from the University of Southern California, spoke about a genius of the brain, Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Swanson noted how Ramón y Cajal, unlike Freud, is not a household name, but should be appreciated as a very important contributor to the creation of the wiring diagram of the brain. Using a histological reaction invented by Camillo Golgi that showed individual nerve cells, Ramón y Cajal began outlining the organization of neural circuits. He also discovered that neural signals travel only one direction, and, as Kandel noted, he “specified for the first time that neurons interact at specific sites, called synapses.” He is one of the few neuroscientists whose work has held up to the passage of time: 150 years later, it is still used to understand the basic wiring of the brain.

Jessell, at Columbia University, addressed geniuses of the molecule, Otto Loewi and Henry Dale. Ramón y Cajal found that neurons communicate at synapses, but a major question remained: Is this communication electrical or chemical? Loewi designed an experiment to try to find a solution. He stimulated the vagus nerve of a frog heart with electricity, which slows the heart rate, and then bathed a second frog heart with the solution from the first heart. The second heart also slowed, proving the transmission stimulated by vagal nerve activation was chemical. The scientific community did not readily accept this experiment until ten years later. Jessell said part of genius is “to overturn skepticism.” The work of Henry Dale was integral to the acceptance of Loewi’s experiment. Dale wanted to “define the chemical nature of neurotransmitters.” He proved acetylcholine was the chemical that stimulated the nerve, and that it is a major neurotransmitter for many functions.

The work of all these scientists in the past paved the way for the scientists onstage to conduct their research. Swanson reflected on the past and looked to the future: “In the 20th century we really figured out how individual neurons work. What we’re missing now is something called systems neuroscience, a theoretical framework where you can actually think about mind rather than individual neurons.”

Here’s video from the program:

– Ali Chunovic

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