Dana Alliance Members in Conversation: A Q&A with Eric Nestler

We spoke to neuroscientist and former Society for Neuroscience president Eric J. Nestler, M.D., Ph.D., about the bipartisan nature of biomedical research, his hopes for the future of addiction and depression, new findings on stress and depression, and more in the latest Dana Alliance member Q&A. These Q&As are part of a regular series of in-depth interviews that give readers a look into the outreach, research, and interests of the preeminent neuroscientists that make up the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

On why his institution, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, prioritizes outreach, Nestler said:

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The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives Celebrates its 25th Anniversary

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President George Bush designated the 1990s as the “Decade of the Brain” to “enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research.” Yet, in the early 90s, even with this presidential proclamation, there was not much information about the brain available to the general public. Outreach was still uncommon and neuroscience funding had even decreased.

In response, thirty of the United States’ preeminent neuroscientists met at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) to discuss the progress and promise of brain research. Led by James D. Watson, Ph.D., co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, and David Mahoney, Dana Foundation chairman at the time, attendees of the meeting vowed to change the landscape of public support for neuroscience. Shortly after, those scientists became founding members of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DABI), an organization comprised of neuroscientists dedicated to advancing public awareness about the progress and promise of brain research. On this day in 1993, the creation of DABI was announced at a press conference in Washington, DC.

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From left: W. Maxwell Cowan, James Watson, Guy McKhann, and David Mahoney announce the creation of DABI at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

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National Parkinson’s Awareness Month Interview with Robert Edwards, M.D.

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a chronic, degenerative neurological disorder that affects roughly one in 100 people over the age of 60. With no biomarker or objective test to make a definitive diagnosis, PD has kept researchers searching for clues on how to treat, and hopefully prevent, the disease.

April is National Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month, and so we sat down with Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member Robert Edwards, M.D., who specializes in the treatment of PD at the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Clinic. Edwards is a professor of neurology and physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. His lab has received international recognition for demonstrating that vesicular monoamine transport protects against MPTP toxicity, suggesting an important mechanism that may also protect against Parkinson’s.

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Robert Edwards, M.D.

Regular exercise is proven to have positive effects on gait speed, strength, balance, and overall quality of life for people with PD. Though studies are still limited, dance therapy is said to greatly improve quality of life for this group, even more so than typical exercise. Can you talk a little bit about this?

RE: I am not an expert in this area, but exercise has clear short-term effects on function and for those more severely affected, on quality of life—those earlier in the disease are doing pretty well in any case. Presumably, exercise helps by improving the function of the basal ganglia circuitry that controls movement, much as it would in normal individuals. Dance therapy focuses on balance and other aspects of motor function different from standard exercises, so might be expected to add something new. Continue reading

Sapolsky on the Biology of Good and Evil

Guest post by Carl Sherman

“We’re a miserably violent species,” said Dana Alliance member Robert M. Sapolsky. “But we’re also a profoundly empathic, compassionate species.”

“How do we make sense of this… how do we understand the biology of it?”

sapolsky 10-2006, Stanford News Services

Robert M. Sapolsky, Ph.D.

In his keynote lecture that launched the “Learning & the Brain” conference in New York City last week, Sapolsky, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences, neurology, and neurological sciences at Stanford University, led his audience on a whirlwind tour of the many-layered terrain from which human acts that include “the horrific, the wonderful, and everything in between” arise.

“We’ll get nowhere if we look for one part of the brain, or one gene, or one childhood experience” responsible for brutal murder and sublime self-sacrifice, he said. “Instead, we have to do something more complicated: to ask what went on in a person’s brain in the second before; also in the minutes, hours, days before; what hormones did to make that brain sensitive. We have to go back to adolescence, to childhood, to the cultures our ancestors invented, to ecosystems, all the way to evolution.”

In his talk, Sapolsky enlivened systematic explanations with intriguing details and quirky research findings.

Among its diverse role in regulating emotion, he pointed out, the insula cortex generates gustatory disgust; it activates if you taste spoiled food. “But it mediates moral disgust as well. When we hear of someone doing something appalling, we’re ‘sick to our stomach.’ It leaves ‘a bad taste in the mouth.’ The insula cortex can’t tell the difference between rotten food and unsavory behavior.” Continue reading

What Art Can Tell Us About the Brain

Dana Alliance member and Professor of Neurobiology Margaret S. Livingstone, Ph.D., spoke about art and the brain on Tuesday night at this year’s annual Irving H. Jurow Lecture at New York University’s College of Art and Science. Her lecture demonstrated to the audience how looking at art reveals how we see and what mechanisms are at work in the brain to create visual perception.

All artists use lines in their works to create shapes that are interpreted by the brain as specific contours or forms. Center-surround antagonism enables edge detection and contrast enhancement within the visual cortex. Livingstone explained center-surround antagonism as a process by which light creates signals, also known as action potentials, in retinal cells. Certain cells in our visual field are excited while other cells fail to fire. Neurons in our visual cortex are either activated or inhibited to create an accurate depiction or mental map of what we see.

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An illustration in Livingstone’s presentation that demonstrates how color and luminescence affect what we see in markedly different ways.

Painting and art rarely represent realistic accuracy even though they are photorealistic. Shadows, reflections, and perspectives defy the laws of physics and, very often, artists emphasize and play with how our vision works and how we see. Our visual system involves two processing streams that originate from the retina— the higher visual cortex ventral stream (the “what” system) and the older and more ancient dorsal stream (the “where” system). The ventral stream recognizes a specific object such as a bike or an animal and the dorsal system allows us to sense where objects are in space, including depth and position.  The dorsal stream is colorblind—the “what” system can see colors but the “where” system can’t.

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