How do we think and remember, or see and hear? What does it mean to be asleep or awake? How does all of this happen within the molecules and nerve cells and networks of the brain, and how can we help the brain when it ages or fails?
These are some of the many questions that faculty and students throughout campus actively pursue through the booming growth of research and educational initiatives in the neurosciences.
Michael Webster, Foundation Professor of psychology, who led the creation of a number of these programs, began work several years ago with faculty in the Departments of Psychology and Biology to create an interdisciplinary bachelor of science degree in neuroscience. It's the first undergraduate degree at the University to span two colleges.
Webster co-directs the major along with Grant Mastick, biology professor. The degree has exploded in popularity, increasing by 20 percent annually since it was started six years ago. It now has nearly 400 students.
Last year, Webster again worked with many faculty to put together a new graduate program in integrative neuroscience. (In a twist of both fate and his leg, an opportune time to write the proposal came when Webster was bed-ridden with a ski injury.)
The program was launched this fall with an initial class of eight doctoral students, and involves 50 faculty members from nearly every corner of campus. Reflecting its wide scope, the program is co-directed by Webster along with Mastick and James Kenyon, Foundation Professor of physiology and senior associate dean for research at the University of Nevada School of Medicine.
These neuroscience programs dovetail with a new Neurology program at the School of Medicine, whose students and physicians will put research findings to work in the treatment of patients. The Department of Neurology represents one of many partnerships forming between the School of Medicine and Renown Health Center.
Paralleling the surge in neuroscience education is an enormous expansion in neuroscience research.
Webster is also the principal investigator and director for a National Institutes of Health Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) for integrative neuroscience. This $10 million COBRE grant has provided substantial research funding for junior faculty in psychology, biology and biomedical engineering. The Center for Integrative Neuroscience is one of three active COBRE awards on campus.
A second COBRE in cell biology of signaling across membranes, led by Chris von Bartheld, professor of physiology, also involves a major focus on understanding the molecular and cellular mechanisms in the brain.
The third, led by Kenton Sanders, Foundation Professor and chair of the physiology and cell biology department, is in its third phase of funding and led the way with research on smooth muscles and the enteric nervous system.
All of the COBREs have brought state-of-the-art research facilities to the campus. For the Neuroscience COBRE, this has meant providing campus researchers with a whole new suite of tools for imaging neural activity.
The most significant among these involved an agreement between the University and Renown Health last year to create a facility for functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As Lars Strother, the director of the COBRE's Neuroimaging Core explains, "A regular MRI scan at a hospital is like Google's satellite photo of the street network in your hometown. It can show the layout of the streets in great detail, but not the activity.
"An fMRI scan monitors blood flow in the brain to show you how the traffic is moving, the equivalent of watching what happens when a stoplight changes from green to red, or how and where the bottlenecks emerge at rush hour," Strother said.
The fMRI technology has revolutionized cognitive neuroscience, but MRI scanners are incredibly expensive and thus would be very difficult for the University to mount on its own. The arrangement between the University and Renown is ideal because the COBRE purchased the accessory head coil necessary for the brain scans and then provides funds for researchers to simply buy time on the MRI scanner that is already in place for clinical work. Thus, by joining forces with Renown's existing MRI facility, the University is now able to conduct cutting-edge fMRI research for a fraction of the cost required to build a facility from scratch.
Strother said the new fMRI facility is already supporting the research of five different teams from the University. These include research by new Assistant Professors of Psychology Jacqueline Snow, who explores how the brain responds differently to real objects versus pictures, and Fang Jiang, who is studying how the brain is organized differently in individuals who have lost their sight or hearing. Strother, the newest faculty member of psychology, also uses fMRI to study how processes in the brain that evolved to perceive shapes and textures are being co-opted to allow us to perceive and understand arbitrary symbols like printed text.
Visual neuroscience is in fact a major theme of the research in the cognitive and brain sciences graduate program in psychology. For example, Michael Crognale, chair of the psychology department, is developing one of the next generations of "adaptive optics" imaging systems, which are allowing researchers to image and stimulate single cells in the living human eye, while Assistant Professor Gideon Caplovitz has captured awards for his studies of visual illusions.
Webster is also a vision scientist. His research is supported by an R01 grant from the National Eye Institute that is currently in its 17th year of funding. His specialty is color and form perception and how our vision adapts to our environment. The work addresses questions such as why different people saw "the dress" image that recently captured the internet as blue and black or white and gold. Webster and his post-doctoral student Ali Winkler published one of the first scientific accounts of the illusion last spring in the journal Current Biology. They showed that the differences of opinion are really differences in how the brain interprets the color of blue light. Their work was featured in hundreds of news outlets around the world, with press reports ranging from Scientific American to the New York Times to Seventeen.com.
However, the visual system is only one small part of the many mysteries of the brain that University researchers are pursuing. For example, psychology also has Assistant Professor Marian Berryhill who studies memory, and Jeff Hutsler, director of the University's cognitive and brain sciences program, who analyzes brain tissue to examine how the anatomy of the brain differs in individuals with autism.
In biology and the School of Medicine, there are teams of researchers with expertise in neural development, the neurobiology of behavior and circadian rhythms, and the genetic and cellular mechanisms controlling neural signaling and function. Similarly, engineering and math include investigators studying applications ranging from nanoparticles to probe the brain to neural networks and how these can be implemented in artificial intelligence and robotics, while faculty in philosophy such as Foundation Professor Thomas Nickles continue to probe some of the most daunting and elusive questions about the mind. In fact, there is almost no field that is not affected by or contributing to the science of the brain. For example, whole new disciplines are emerging in areas such as neuroeconomics (the neural basis for how people make decisions or assign value) and neuroaesthetics (the brain science underlying how we perceive or create art).
The opportunities for research in neuroscience, Webster said, are almost endless.
"Much as astrophysicists plumb the deepest recesses of space to understand questions about the cosmos, neuroscientists examine equally complex and mysterious worlds that are much closer to home," he said.
The impact of neuroscience also means that students with training in the field are in high demand. After they earn their diplomas, neuroscience graduates can choose from a multitude of career options. The bachelor's of science degree in neuroscience is very popular with pre-medical students. Moreover, the pharmaceutical and biotech industries hire large numbers of neuroscience graduates, and other employment opportunities in the private sector include work with growing "smart" technologies, venture-capital firms, or with law firms that specialize in intellectual property. And there are also academics to lead the next generation of educators and researchers in the field.
"It's hard not to be intrigued and fascinated by the brain," Webster said. "And, it's an incredibly exciting time to be in the field."
And that excitement on campus is continuing to grow. The University has earmarked a strategic cluster of eight new faculty hires in neuroscience during the next few years. These include new hires in both psychology and biology, and targeting newly emerging approaches such as optogenetics, which allows whole networks of nerve cells to be turned on or off with light. The resources and programs already in place will be important in recruiting the best talent to the University, and will light the way for positioning the institution to be a leader in neuroscience in the years ahead.
Find out more about neuroscience by visiting the University's neuroscience hub at unr.edu/neuroscience.