This month, the UCLA Brain Mapping Center announced that it would participate in an intensive national effort to better understand the structure and function of the human brain. The goal is to further understanding of neurological disorders such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
“This initiative is more comprehensive than anything I’ve ever seen,” noted Professor John Mazziotta, chair of UCLA’s department of neurology and director of the UCLA Brain Mapping Center. He added, “Understanding the brain and how it functions would go far beyond the things we’re able to do today in medicine and neuroscience. This effort will be both the stimulus and the challenge to work and collaborate in ways we haven’t done before, but always have wanted to.”
Dr. Mazziotta , who coined the term “brain mapping” in 1993, and other UCLA researchers are well-positioned to play a significant role in the effort and to capture funding that will support such an initiative. For example, the campus is already home to the Ahmanson Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. In addition, UCLA’s nanoscience and nanotechnology research gives the campus a tremendous strategic advantage. “The important function and activity of the brain take place at the synapses,” explained Paul Weiss, director of the California NanoSystems Institute headquartered at UCLA, who believes synapses are best studied using nanoscience. (A proposal coauthored by Weiss, urging the development of new tools and technologies for brain activity mapping, was published on March 7 in the journal Science.) Dr. Weiss added, “In addition, we have made more than 10 years of enormous investment in nanoscience, which, we believe, will provide tools that will accelerate — by decades — the advances in neuroscience.”
UCLA’s neuroscience community also ranks among the largest on the globe. Dr. Mazziotta estimates that more than 500 UCLA faculty members are engaged in studying the brain from a wide variety of perspectives. Even before the national initiative was announced, efforts were already underway here to encourage more cross-disciplinary cooperation within that community, a move that would help attract philanthropy and grants to support brain research. That effort, called UCLA Neuroscience, is being chaired by Professor Kelsey Martin, who also chairs UCLA’s biological chemistry department.
Dr. Martin noted that the national effort will require an understanding of the emergent properties of the brain, how all of the pieces of the puzzle work, but from a broader perspective, so that the researchers can determine how it all fits together. He noted, “That will definitely require a large interdisciplinary effort.” She explained, for instance, fully understanding depression isn’t just a neurological or psychological question. “It’s a major health issue, but also a major economic one. And it brings in questions about motivation. Sociology and anthropology will play roles because of how culture interfaces with our mood and with our attitudes toward the disease, its symptoms and treatment.”
Other cross-disciplinary research already underway at UCLA is focused on improving our understanding of how we form and retain memories. Reaching that goal requires expertise not only from neuroscience, but also from mathematics and physics (potential sources for the technology other researchers would use), psychology, the social sciences and even education. “Imagine being able to specifically design educational programs for children and knowing Dr. exactly how and when to deliver new material to each child once you know how they learn,” Mazziotta explained. He added, “It’s hard to think of areas of study this wouldn’t touch.”
Drs. Martin, Mazziotta, and Weiss all maintain that the close proximity of UCLA’s medical enterprise to engineering, basic sciences, nanoscience and social sciences — an asset that few other research universities can claim — will be a major boon when it comes to encouraging faculty to work together. Unlike the space race, with its clearly defined goal to put a man on the moon, the national brain activity–mapping effort may not be limited to a single objective or endpoint. Beyond working toward possible cures for neurological disorders and treatments for brain injury, the research it spurs could yield unexpected discoveries along the way. “That was true of NASA as well,” noted Dr. Mazziotta, adding, “Things were invented and provided to society as a result of the space program long before the moon landing.