What do you know about your brain? Would you pay the equivalent of a six-pack so that scientists could understand it better?

Let’s call that “your brain on beer.”

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute built a campus in Loudoun County called Janelia Farm. In return for getting great tax breaks, Janelia occasionally sponsors lectures that are free and open to the public called Dialogues of Discovery.

Doug and I attend when we can because the lectures are always interesting. Plus they serve great appetizers beforehand. We don’t get there often. Three years ago I blogged about learning about?mouse vocalizations.

Yesterday we heard neuroscientist Cori Bargmann speak on “Ancient Molecules and the Modern Brain: Understanding Our Social Nature.”

Earlier this year President Obama created the BRAIN Initiative, which is determined to unlock the secrets of the brain in the same way that Apollo determined it would put a man on the moon, or the Genome Project is mapping the human genome. These are efforts that need an interdisciplinary approach, and long range funding. Dr. Bargmann is the co-chair of the NIH planning group for the BRAIN Initiative. I appreciated that she stressed that brain research should be done cooperatively on a global scale.

Here’s something fun about research dollars: a friend of hers calculated that the Apollo mission cost each American the equivalent of a six-pack of beer. In today’s dollars that would be 3 billion dollars. What if scientists could unlock secrets of the brain for that investment (which she thinks is possible). Would that not be worth the equivalent of a six-pack to every American?

Dr. Bargmann studies the hard-wiring/soft-wiring of the brain in animals and how that relates to patterns of behavior in a social context, such as aggression, mating, and the rearing of young. Specifically, she studies tiny transparent worms, and the role of the neuropeptide oxytocin in their mating behaviors.

Oxytocin is a fascinating chemical. If you’re a woman who has labored, lactated or protected her young, you’re already well acquainted with it.

The reason to study oxytocin in these worms is that they have 302 neurons in their brains, whereas humans have 10 billion neurons in 300 major areas. Even though humans have more brain areas than worms have neurons, there are fundamental similarities between how brains act.

Humans share 99% of genes with other animals. Think of this as having?a huge shared vocabulary of neurons. In a sense, our social context then becomes the grammar for how our vocabulary is used.

Hardwiring in the brain changes very slowly, while neuronal activity itself is lightning speed. Softwiring (such as a neuropeptide like oxytocin or hormones) affects the hardwiring at an in-between speed. It’s a regulator. Dr. Bargmann used the analogy of traffic to describe some of this brain function.

We saw brief clips of worms engaging in mating behaviors (R rated!) while specific neurons in the worm’s brain had been “highlighted” by injecting certain neurons with something or other. We also watched aggregation vs. avoidance behavior. Even worms sometimes want to be left alone.

Dr. Bargmann referenced a YouTube video called “Battle at Kruger” about buffalo and lions and how social context changes animal behavior. I won’t spoil it by commenting.

We all have many brains. Our brains change constantly.

I appreciated the fact that she ended with a quotation from Henry James (1890) to describe the process of investigating the brain: “It takes a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange.”

So many diseases will be impacted by brain research, from Autism to Parkinsons. I have never understood why “psychiatric” diseases are somehow separate from “real” diseases. Can you imagine what our grandchildren will think when they realize how doctors used to divide the body in this way? It will be like reading about George Washington being bled to death by the preeminent physicians of his day.

During the Q&A, a number of high school students asked really great questions. Watching the scientist engage with these students was the best part of the evening. Plus the cheese and fruit platter. Thanks Howard.


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