The human brain is only three-pounds of biological tissue, yet it is the source of all our perceptions, thoughts and movements. Every word spoken, every invention realized, every touch of a soccer ball – is a testament to the great capacity of the human brain.
The brain remains profoundly mysterious. From how it processes pain to why it becomes diseased to the origins of consciousness, questions remain about virtually all of its structures and functions, which continue to perplex scientists.
In recognition of the immensity and importance of this challenge, the University of Chicago has launched the Grossman Institute for Neuroscience, Quantitative Biology and Human Behavior, which aims to build new cross-disciplinary collaborations focused on understanding the brain and human behavior.
We spoke with John Maunsell, PhD, distinguished neuroscientist and inaugural director of the Grossman Institute, to learn more about his vision for neuroscience research at the University of Chicago.
What is the goal of the Grossman Institute?
The Grossman Institute will span boundaries and coordinate research activities, not only in the biological sciences but across the University. The goal is to do all we can to support progress in research on neuroscience, human behavior and quantitative biology at the University. A key approach we will take is to foster new collaborations and the exchange of ideas. When people from radically different scientific cultures – for example, psychology and biophysics – work together, they come up with questions and insights that wouldn’t emerge in the ordinary scheme of things, where disciplines and even laboratories work independently of one another.
Why is this necessary?
Neuroscience is fundamentally multidisciplinary. It’s become clear that we’re never going to solve the brain if we approach it from any one direction. You can’t really understand neuroanatomy without thinking about the neurophysiology and the behavioral patterns that anatomy supports. And you can’t really understand neurophysiology without understanding its neuroanatomical and neurodevelopmental basis, and so on. Generally as a field moves forward and grows bigger, it tends to fractionate into specialties and subdivisions. That’s not happening so much in neuroscience. In fact, as it grows larger, neuroscience is becoming more integrated. That’s necessary for progress, but it’s a challenge for different, growing sub-disciplines to keep communicating and interacting effectively. That’s the process that we’re trying to facilitate.
Human behavior is in the name of the institute. What will be studied?
The long-term goal of neuroscience is to explain human behavior, so in a very real sense all neuroscience is about human behavior. That includes not only experiments that directly measure the limits of human performance, but also studies of the thousands of individual circuits and structures that make up the brain, and right on down to the nuts and bolts, the specialized molecules that make up brain cells and the genetics that support the brain’s development and its amazing capacity to learn throughout our lives.
Human behavior can be viewed as the ultimate challenge for neuroscience. We won’t understand the brain until we can explain how it allows us to reach, grasp, walk and run gracefully. Because everyday life is a series of behaviors, it’s difficult to appreciate how impressive even basic behaviors are. Standing up and walking seem simple and uninvolved, but it took you a year and a half of practicing every day before you could do them even moderately well. And after decades of effort, we still haven’t made robots that perform half as well as any toddler.
Human behavior also includes cognition. How do we make decisions or do mental calculations? Cognition might arise from computations similar to those used by the brain to control muscle actions, or it might require quite distinct mechanisms. Emotions, reward, fear, pain — all of these are critical to our social interactions and survival, but the mechanisms that generate those experiences are poorly understood. Human behavior is the big challenge, and I think it’s good that we highlight it in our institute name.
What about quantitative biology? How does that relate to neuroscience and human behavior?
Neuroscience is entering the age of big data. Functional imaging experiments in humans can produce terabytes of data very quickly. Advances in neurophysiological devices and equipment allow neuroscientists to collect electrical brain signals from hundreds of electrodes simultaneously. Petabytes of DNA sequences from human patients with neurological disorders are screened for clues to genetic vulnerabilities. All of these technologies, and others like them, are a boon to science, but they are creating new challenges. It’s becoming more difficult to not only store these data and get them into a form where they’re readily accessible and can be shared, but also to understand the various ways that they can be exploited to extract new information and new understanding. We are really just scratching the surface on what can be done with some of these datasets. The flood of data we’re getting from neuroscience research demands advanced quantitative approaches. Luckily one of the real strengths of the University of Chicago is that so many of its disciplines take a quantitative approach.
The name of the Institute might seem like a mouthful, but it’s accurate: We’re studying neuroscience with quantitative approaches in order to reveal the origins of human behavior. It all fits pretty well.
What are you most excited for?
All of it. We really seem to be at a turning point for neuroscience. We’ve suddenly got so many powerful tools – tools that we were only dreaming of 10 to 20 years ago. We’ve got new molecular and cellular methods that make it possible to identify and distinguish different classes of brain cells. We have multi-electrode devices where you can record from hundreds or thousands of cells electrically. New optical methods sound almost like science fiction. By genetically engineering neurons to make fluorescent molecules, we can now monitor the electrical activity of hundreds of brain cells at once by detecting the light they emit. Even more powerfully, we can focus light on them to change their electrical activity and look at how the animal’s behavior changes. And we can analyze the new data with computer power and computational approaches that were unimaginable just a short time ago.
The floodgates are going to open in terms of the amount of data that we’ll have available, and the understanding will follow. We’re in the position where we can make some serious and rapid progress. The White House’s BRAIN Initiative and other programs reflect the widespread sense that there is a tremendous opportunity to move forward quickly now. It’s not one specific question or one specific area or one animal model. The new tools are relevant to neuroscience questions across the board.
How ambitious is this institute?
It’s the right moment to be ambitious. There’s real potential for doing something special here that will be widely appreciated and which will energize neuroscience in a very good way. The University of Chicago is a world-class university and we want to be at the leading edge of neuroscience in the coming decades while the mechanics of the brain are being worked out. By shining a light on what neuroscientists at UC are doing, we will facilitate their interactions with neuroscientists from around the world on the major questions. The Institute is for everyone at the University with interest in neuroscience, from undergrads on up. The goal is to be as inclusive and enabling as possible. I hope we can end up with the Institute serving and speaking for the neuroscience community throughout the University. That would be good for everyone.
What’s the most important message for the public to know about this push for neuroscience research?
We have to be careful about promising too much or promising to be fast, but what we are talking about is a deep, mechanistic understanding of the human brain. There’s not an aspect of human life this understanding isn’t going to touch. It might take decades, or it might fall into place much faster, but we will get there.
We are eventually going to understand the control of behavior, we’re going to understand emotion, and we’re going to understand mental disease, including devastating conditions like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, depression and other impairments that we have no mechanistic understanding of at the moment. Virtually everyone has someone in their extended family who is affected by mental disorders. These are terrible diseases that touch what a person is, but they’re not beyond our understanding.
Understanding the brain will have other far-reaching consequences. For example, on the computational side, there isn’t a facial recognition system today that does half as well as any human. It seems that recognizing a face should be a straightforward problem, but the human brain integrates sensory information in ways that we don’t yet fathom. Once we do, and then translate this understanding for computers and diagnostic systems and logical systems, it’s going to be transformational.
Even fields like law will be affected. A lot of what goes on in courts involves attempting to understand the mental state of someone who’s committed a crime. In civil cases, there’s a huge amount of focus on pain and suffering. These assessments seem subjective and squishy, but we’re talking about biological mechanisms that can be measured and understood in objective ways if we really knew what we were dealing with.
Ultimately we’re talking about consciousness. Learning how our perceptions, feelings and ideas can emerge from the combined activity of billions of individual brain cells will profoundly advance our understanding of who we are. There’s an answer to the question of consciousness and it’s going to come from neuroscience, eventually.
We don’t know how long it will take before questions like these are answered, but they will all be approachable. Each is actually a functional question about brain mechanisms. The field is poised to provide the answers. It’s a great time to be in neuroscience and there’s no question that there will be enormous returns on this kind of investment.