Emory Report
January 14, 2008
Volume 60, Number 15

Can the brain solve problems during sleep?

Choi: I believe the answer is yes, although despite spending a third of our adult lives asleep, sleep remains poorly understood.

The sleeping brain appears to be quite active, processing information received during wakefulness.

One recent study demonstrated that a period of sleep doubled the likelihood that subjects would gain insight into solving a challenging puzzle and break through to an “aha!” moment. We do know that inadequate sleep — a problem faced by many people at least from time to time — has adverse consequences for the function of the brain as well as other bodily systems.

Several Emory faculty have made important contributions to sleep medicine, including David Rye, David Schulman and Kathy Parker.

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January 14, 2008
Electrical impulses: Second thoughts engineer a career in neuroscience

By robin tricoles

When Dennis Choi was a boy living in Massachusetts he often visited the junkyard where he came across troves of scrap material, lugged them home, and spirited them to a workshop in the basement of his parents’ home.

“The nearby junkyard would sell me electrical parts from old military equipment by the pound at scrap-metal prices. I could buy a crate full of vacuum tubes for $1, and I could walk away with all this high-quality, military electrical equipment for not much more. Then I would cannibalize it and build things like radios or amplifiers,” says Choi.

Choi, now a neuroscientist renowned for his groundbreaking research on brain and spinal cord injury, had originally set his sights on becoming an electrical engineer, a subject that came naturally to him.

But he changed his mind about electrical engineering while an undergraduate at Harvard University. “I began thinking about biology. The trigger was having a roommate who was a biologist and was clearly doing more interesting stuff than I was, so I changed my major to biochemistry,” says Choi. “I began to see that neurobiology was a field that would allow me to still be an electrician and a biologist, an electrical biologist.”

Last summer, Choi joined Emory as director of the Neuroscience, Human Nature and Society strategic initiative as well as the new Comprehensive Neurosciences Center in Woodruff Health Sciences Center.
Choi received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees in 1978 from Harvard and the Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Program in Health Sciences and Technology. After completing residency and fellowship training in neurology at Harvard, he joined the faculty at Stanford University, where he began his renowned research into the mechanisms of neuronal cell death underlying brain and spinal cord injury.

More than electrical engineering, clinical medicine allowed Choi to spend time with people, especially patients. “Seeing patients was a major part of the appeal to entering medicine. Being a clinician-scientist gave me a chance to make an impact through research while working closely with the people I was trying to help,” he says.

However, for the time being, Choi is focused on overseeing the development of Emory’s diverse neuroscience effort that currently encompasses the work of more than 250 faculty across multiple schools. And as director of the Comprehensive Neuroscience Center, Choi will lead a clinical and translational hub that integrates the robust clinical care, research and education activities of several departments within WHSC. “It is my hope to get back to some of my own work in due course, but my top priority has to be facilitating and strengthening neuroscience at Emory,” he notes.

Not long ago, while living in Philadelphia and serving as executive vice president for neuroscience at Merck Research Labs, Choi took on a different kind of challenge: learning to play a musical instrument. “I did a little experimentation, and I learned very quickly that on a talent scale of one — horrible — to 10 — virtuoso — I was definitely a one. I could more easily aspire to running a four-minute mile than playing most melodic instruments,” he laughs. He decided on drums. “I ended up joining a surf band with a bunch of other old guys who got together from time to time. We never got approached by a record label, but it was fun. And whatever I lacked in skill I made up in volume!”

Although leisure time is now in short supply, reading is Choi’s activity of choice. “I read everything from light novels to books on scientific history,” he says. “But I tend to read several books concurrently. To me, serious books are better read in little pieces — gives you time to digest and reflect. However, I tend to read mystery novels cover-to-cover, sometimes in a single sitting, because I can’t wait to find out what happens next.”