B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
By Hope Green
In the fourth century BCE, mankind made a great leap forward in our conception of the brain when Hippocrates identified it as the seat of intelligence and sensation. Plato agreed, although Aristotle did not: he believed he did all that deep thinking with his heart.
The ancients would be awestruck by methods that modern scientists use to understand the nervous system. Computer modeling, in particular, is becoming an increasingly useful tool in developing theories about how all the brains components work or malfunction. And now, with a significant financial boost from a private foundation, Boston University is well positioned to employ such methods to achieve 21st century breakthroughs in neurological research.
The award of $1.75 million from the Burrroughs Wellcome Fund, announced on November 7, will support the Universitys new Program in Mathematical and Computational Neuroscience (PMCN) for the next five years. Led by an interdisciplinary group of professors, the program will train graduate and postdoctoral students whose primary background is in mathematics and the hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry, to apply their skills to solving biological problems.
In the long run, their collaborative research could help advance the understanding of nervous system disorders and contribute knowledge to the field of artificial intelligence.
Codirectors of the new program are Nancy Kopell, BUs William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of Mathematics and Science and codirector of the Center for Biodynamics, and Howard Eichenbaum, CAS professor of psychology.
We believe this program is unique," Kopell says. "Though neurobiology remains one of the great frontiers of science, with questions needing new mathematical and modeling skills, there are still very few training opportunities for people initially trained in the physical sciences to use those skills in neuroscience."
Standard methods of inquiry into the nervous system look at what happens in a single cell or group of cells, Kopell says, but do not fully explain how all the parts of the brain work together so we can think and move around. "The really terrific use of mathematics is in bridging levels of organization, taking information thats known at one level, such as how a single neuron might react to inputs, and developing a theory of how networks of such neurons will behave."
Kopell joined the College of Arts and Sciences faculty in 1986, and 10 years later she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. The Burroughs Wellcome award, Provost Dennis Berkey says, "recognizes Professor Kopells broad interdisciplinary interests and expertise, as well as her high standing internationally as a mathematician and a scientist. It is a great but very well deserved honor, and we are very proud to have her on our faculty."
PMCN is not a degree-granting program; its students will earn their degrees either from ENGs department of biomedical engineering or the newly formed GRS Program in Neuroscience, which Eichenbaum directs.
"Both of these programs already emphasize the use of computational modeling and experimental work," Eichenbaum says, "but they dont particularly fund students who come in as mathematicians. Whats unique about the new program is that it is designed for students who are strong in math and the physical sciences to learn neuroscience in an interdisciplinary way."
The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, a private foundation that supports advancement of the medical sciences, awarded a total of $9.25 million to four universities through its highly selective Interfaces in Science Program. The Interfaces initiative was established in 1996 to promote cross-disciplinary research related to human health. This years other Interfaces recipients are Princeton University, the University of Chicago, and the University of CaliforniaSan Francisco.
"Recent scientific advances make it possible to analyze complex biological phenomena, including disease processes, in terms of basic physical and chemical interactions of molecules," says Enrequita Bond, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund president. "Indeed, some of the most promising recent discoveries in biomedicine now result from the insights and skills of investigators who have strong backgrounds in physics, chemistry, or mathematics.
"But while the physical, chemical, and computational sciences have great potential to advance the biomedical sciences and enhance human health," Bond adds, "the disciplinary barriers at institutions must be broken down, and young investigators must be recruited who will bring different approaches and new ideas to the task of solving interesting medical problems. This will require thinking in innovative ways and learning how to best capitalize on new and deep pools of scientific talent."