Emory Report
March 20, 2006
Volume 58, Number 23


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March 20 , 2006
Neuroscience initiative takes stage

BY Holly Korschun

The classic “mind-body” question and the challenges of integrating multiple levels of neuroscience research and education generated lively discussion during a campus-wide community seminar on the strategic initiative, “Neuroscience, Human Nature and Society,” held March 9 in Woodruff Library’s Jones Room.

A diverse panel of participants—from neurology, history, psychiatry, psychology, chemistry, pharmacology, philosophy, ethics, Yerkes Primate Center and Middle Eastern and South Asian studies—tackled thorny questions about what makes humans unique and how scientific discoveries about the brain affect beliefs about behavior and responsibility. And, most importantly, what are Emory’s special strengths to help advance understanding of the relationship between the physical brain and human experience?

Emory neuroscientists in the School of Medicine and Yerkes have pioneered new treatments for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and a variety of psychiatric disorders. Scientists in Yerkes’ Living Links Center have made groundbreaking discoveries about humans and nonhuman primates, leading to a clearer understanding of evolution and behavior. The Center for Ethics continues to be a key component of neuroscience inquiry.

Emory has a head start in integrating the neurosciences throughout the University, according to neurology chair Allan Levey, an initiative leader along with psychology Professor Elaine Walker. “Our faculty have a true sense of university,” Levey said. “They think institutionally and act collaboratively.”

Panelists were asked to name the most important neuroscience questions of the next decade and how Emory can help answer them.

“What would the world be like without Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases?” said Yerkes Director Stuart Zola. “The neurosciences hold concrete promise for solving these age-linked problems, yet we also must face the challenges we create when people live longer.”

“Studies of abnormal and normal human behavior will span all aspects of human nature and the human spirit,” said psychiatrist Clint Kilts. “The causes of psychiatric problems were once considered ‘soft science.’ Now we must challenge ourselves to understand the genetic, environmental and psychosocial causes of psychiatric problems in order to prevent and treat them ahead of time.”

“We must approach our work in the neurosciences with caution and modesty,” said historian Patrick Allitt. “We should not assume that a materialist understanding of the brain can explain what things mean.”

By integrating neural, cellular, molecular and behavioral models, said psychologist Larry Barsalou, “We are poised to make great strides in understanding issues such as the nature of perception.”

Humanists often tell scientists whether they think a pursuit is ethical, noted Gordon Newby, chair of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies. But by exploring questions such as the compatibility between science and religion, he said, the humanities and the sciences can become partners in helping society, as well as conduits for reaching the larger community.

Audience discussion focused on how to use Emory’s neuroscience theme to accomplish the most good for society. How could advances in the field foster intelligence and nourish cognition? And how to take advantage of tremendous advances in molecular biology to develop tangible improvements in medicine?

“The neural code of being human will be much harder to crack than the genetic code,” Kilts said.

“The neurosciences at Emory have the greatest potential of any discipline—if we do it right,” said neurologist Mahlon DeLong. “We want Emory to be the place to be for education, clinical care and discovery in the neurosciences, and we must tie the medical enterprise to the greater community. This is the chance of a lifetime for neuroscience.”