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Graybiel: Unlocking mysteries of the human brain

The intricacies and untapped potential of the human brain that have provided a lifetime of research inspiration for Ann M. Graybiel now hold the potential for great hope for mankind. The Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Neuroscience in the department of brain and cognitive sciences and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT told a near-capacity crowd at her late morning academic symposium talk that ongoing research efforts are providing a “wonderful chance to do good.”

Graybiel walked the audience through an overview lesson of the human brain, and detailed how past research efforts have focused on the outer mantle, or the “thinking cap” of the brain, and the sensory areas.

Flashing a scan of a human brain onto the screen, Graybiel identified the basal ganglia, the deep-brain structures that start and control movement and produce dopamine. The loss of dopamine in the deep brain is what is seen in Parkinson’s disease, and is classically evidenced by slowness of movement and tremors.

“People began to realize that Parkinson’s patients have difficulty not only in movement, but in the cognitive realm as well,” she said. “That finding provided a clue as to what was going on in the brain, and how the deep brain can have such an incredible influence on our thinking.”

Graybiel cited a 1999 study conducted by researchers in Paris on a 52-year-old female Parkinson’s patient, whose outward behavior was dramatically influenced by electrode stimulation of specific parts of the brain. Such observations, she said, can lead to understanding of and treatments for a host of diseases and disorders, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Tourette’s Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism and drug addiction.

A series of brain scan images showed how sections of the brain light up for romantic attraction or the introduction of pleasure as a result of a recreational drug. In the case of some cocaine addicts, she said, merely being shown images of other people handing drug paraphernalia spurred the reaction.

“Just getting the contextualized image set off this region of the brain,” said Graybiel, who noted the potential such findings could have in the treatment of addictions.

Ongoing efforts will continue to focus on deepening understanding of the mysteries of the brain, as well as the application of that knowledge to aid mankind in the treatment of debilitating diseases.

“There are many ways to go at this,” she said. “Why not add new neurons to the brain? Why not build, or mold or modify new circuits? How many of us, for example, could be the next Bach?”

Graybiel was introduced by Patricia H. Manz, assistant professor of school psychology in the College of Education. Following her talk, a discussion was led by Colin J. Saldanha, an assistant professor of biological sciences who is studying the spatial memory of songbirds.

During that discussion, Graybiel bemoaned the increasing lack of federal funding for medical and scientific research.

“It’s at the point where only 6 percent of grant proposals are funded, which means 94 percent aren’t,” she said. “We’re at a crisis stage right now. We must tell people about the wonderful potential of science.”

To read about the other Academic Symposium sessions, please see Academic Symposium explores global impact of research.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Thursday, April 12, 2007

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