The Brain: The Final Frontier?

Neuroscience institute is poised for breakthroughs.

November/December 2014

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The Brain: The Final Frontier?

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

The title of this column, inspired by the opening phrase from my favorite TV show of the 1960s (Star Trek), seems especially appropriate. The phrase creates a sense of wonder, and when it comes to understanding what makes us human, the brain is central; yet its overall operation remains relatively mysterious. When the White House launched the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative in 2013, President Obama recognized it as one of the grand challenges of the 21st century. So it is fitting that one of our newest institutes, the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, has set as its goal nothing less than "to understand how the brain gives rise to mental life and behavior."

Led by William T. Newsome, a professor of neurobiology who is internationally recognized for his work in decision-making, the Stanford Neurosciences Institute facilitates large-scale, collaborative research that extends beyond the usual boundaries of neuroscience. It builds on what we learned from Bio-X—our grand experiment that changed how we conduct research—about encouraging interdisciplinary groups of scholars to work together to tackle big problems, to pursue high-risk, high-reward challenges.

In October, the Stanford Neurosciences Institute hosted its inaugural symposium, featuring some of the world's leading neuroscientists discussing the latest developments. Earlier in the year, it launched its Big Ideas competition. The winning proposals are ambitious—ranging from creating new collaborative teams to treat stroke and degenerative diseases to developing new technologies for understanding and modulating the brain's activity to exploring the way the brain makes choices and relating that to psychology, business, economics and public policy.

Some of the most innovative recent advances in the neurosciences have occurred at Stanford. Many of you have read about bioengineering professor Karl Deisseroth's novel invention, optogenetics, which enables researchers to control and sense brain cells with light and has been called "the most revolutionary thing that has happened in neuroscience in the past couple of decades." It earned Deisseroth the 2014 Keio Medical Science Prize. While optogenetics has immediate research applications, it may also have important clinical applications for depression, Parkinson's disease, chronic pain and other illnesses. CLARITY is another technique Deisseroth developed to make brain tissue transparent.

Also paving the way for future discovery is Thomas Südhof's research in understanding how the brain makes synaptic connections. Most recently, Südhof, professor of molecular and cellular physiology and co-recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine, collaborated with Stephen Quake, professor of bioengineering, to understand how different neurexin proteins affect synaptic function normally and in neurological disorders such as autism.

Electrical engineering professor Krishna Shenoy's research focuses on designing neural prostheses, devices that can be controlled by the mind to give function back to physically disabled patients. Earlier this year, his team made a pivotal discovery when they identified how different parts of the brain can work together to perform an action without interfering with each other when operating independently.

These and other discoveries have revealed the brain's tremendous complexity. It is the ultimate interdisciplinary field, and Stanford's neuroscientists—more than 100 throughout the university—are working with psychologists, engineers, computer scientists, physicists and other specialists to piece together the puzzle.

The neurosciences are relevant not just for the prevention and treatment of brain disorders. There are many implications for law, education, economics, business and other fields. Just imagine the possibilities if we understand how we think, how we learn, how we decide. The opportunities are countless.

The brain is today's frontier, and at Stanford, we are advancing knowledge in ways that will help people for generations to come. It is truly a grand challenge.

John Hennessy was the president of Stanford University.

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