Emory and the changing climate of neuroscience

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Good interdisciplinarity is . . . in some ways just more work.
Tom Insel, Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience

Scholarship these days . . . involves one's own personal style of eclecticism
Robert A. Paul, Candler Professor and Chair, The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Academic Exchange February/March 2000 Contents Page

When Sigmund Freud died in 1939, the poet W. H. Auden memorialized him not as a man but as a "whole climate of opinion." In recent decades, however, scientific insights into the physiological roots of behavior have altered that intellectual climate drastically. As imaging technology pinpoints areas of the brain involved in particular behaviors, the Human Genome Project approaches its goal of identifying every human gene. Meanwhile, discoveries in molecular biology have fueled the rise of evolutionary psychology, catapulting books like How the Mind Works, by mit professor Steven Pinker, onto the bestseller list. Even love, fear, and memory--the accustomed stuff of humanistic inquiry--are now being tracked in laboratories.

In the midst of this storm of change, the National Science Foundation has awarded $20 million--the largest grant ever received at Emory--to a consortium of sixty scientists from Emory and other Atlanta institutions to investigate the links between biology and behavior. Psychiatry professor Tom Insel, who recently stepped down as director of Yerkes to take the helm of the new Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN), can't predict all the paths the center's research will take. But he does think the center will generate new--and some would suggest problematic--approaches to neuroscience.


The CBN's immediate goal is less about specific projects and more about "creating a fertile environment for research" through synergistic interdisciplinary and inter-institutional "collaboratories," according to Georgia State biologist Elliott Albers, a co-director of the CBN. By departing from the traditional, single-lab structure, the CBN's collaboratories aim to bring together a great variety of researchers, including psychiatrists, geneticists, and biologists. This full house, however, raises concerns about how to prevent cross-disciplinary excitement from devolving into chaos.

"There is a risk of being a mile wide and an inch deep," acknowledges Insel, whose comment is part of a longer interview.

"I worry about the project that has ten investigators but no one who really knows what's going on. Even though we like to think it is an opportunity for new discoveries--and I think it is--goodinterdisciplinarity is also incredibly time-consuming."

Insel predicts the reward for this investment in interdisciplinarity will be advances in functional genomics, the understanding of how genes actually work. While the nineties were celebrated as "the decade of the brain," he christens the next ten years as the "decade of the genome." Though the mapping of the genome has received great hype, it won't be that helpful, warns Insel. "It's like having the abc's: now we need to write the essays." Through the CBN, researchers from Emory, Georgia Tech, Morehouse, Georgia State, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta will begin those compositions by investigating how brain mechanisms influence and are influenced by complex behaviors. Most importantly, those scientists will examine behaviors such as fear, affiliation, and aggression across a range of species.

By abandoning the traditional paradigm of studying only one species, the center hopes to discover fundamental principles of behavior sculpted by evolution. For example, does serotonin control aggression in mammals as it appears to in invertebrates? The answer will tell us more about human evolution as well as illuminate the complexity of the relationship between biology and behavior. For Emory psychiatry professor Michael Davis, this chance to translate his research on fear from rats to non-human primates offers a window onto the role of the human cortex in turning a frightening experience into an unshakable memory. While some memories, like the sensation of touching a hot stove, protect people from further harm, other memories, like the image of seeing a friend shot in war, can return repeatedly, actually causing more damage. Since such memories are "enormously difficult to erase," says Davis, "our lab will study what parts of the brain are involved in overcoming fear."


While the organizational hurdles before the CBN are daunting, the center's very genesis reveals a knack for orchestration. A friendship between Albers and Insel (and their post-docs) sparked the idea for the center while an Atlanta chapter of the Society for Neuroscience brought more researchers together. When the National Science Foundation heightened its emphasis on education and minority recruitment in its new wave of Science and Technology Centers, Insel and his colleagues realized Atlanta, with its array of historically black institutions, afforded a unique opportunity.

Education--creating a premier graduate neuroscience program, enhancing undergraduate programs, and enriching k­12 science education in Georgia--is a key aspect of the CBN's mission, alongside scientific discovery and technology transfer. The center's interinstitutional undergraduate major and graduate program will enable students to take classes at any of the CBN's schools. Working out the educational collaboration may prove even trickier, though, than the center's primary research questions. Emory's Pat Marsteller, senior lecturer in biology and a CBN co-director, points out that there
are almost no precedents for such ambitious collaboration on the undergraduate level. Recognizing the gulf in cultures between institutions, Marsteller says, "we have even been thinking about a 'semester abroad' exchange plan" to help students from Emory or from Morehouse to venture into the other world just across town.
Besides removing institutional barriers, the CBN also plans to bridge some of the traditional distance between the larger culture and the academy. Partnerships with cnn and public television will aid the translation of the center's research for a general audience, while Emory's Biotechnology Development Center will provide the links to industry to facilitate technology transfer and perhaps open more career paths for the CBN's students.

With its interdisciplinary structure and web of connections with other universities, state agencies, and corporations, the center seems poised not only to further change the climate of ideas in neuroscience but also to offer a barometer for the changing climate for knowledge inquiry in the academy.