The Belousov-Zhabotinsky chemical reaction goes something like this: a blue spot appears in a petri dish of red chemicals and expands into a ring. In its center, a second spot forms and spreads, followed by a third, forming a bulls-eye pattern. Other bulls-eyes sprout nearby and meld. When Nancy Kopell saw the reaction, she was eager to mathematically explain how the rings form and interact—and began calculating.
This was one of the first research projects she undertook in a pioneering career integrating mathematics, chemistry, biology, and neuroscience. Since then, she has computed patterns through increasingly complex systems in nature, from the electrical wave coursing down a lamprey’s spine to the way humans think.
Now the William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor of Mathematics & Statistics at Boston University, Kopell examines how the electrical patterns in our brain coordinate cognition—and what happens when they become abnormal.
“An individual brain cell is like a complicated electrical circuit,” says Kopell, who uses equations and computer modeling to illuminate brain function. Each cell produces electrical activity; the cells talk to one another, creating a network of circuits. The electrical activity that each network produces can be measured as spikes in voltage across a system. In a given period of time, that voltage goes up and down in a periodic—or rhythmic—pattern.
“One of the things I believe the brain uses the rhythms for is to coordinate different parts of the brain in very subtle and flexible ways,” Kopell says. If something goes wrong with those rhythms, it interferes with the brain’s ability to carry out the coordination necessary for thinking, decision-making, and concentration. “To the best of my knowledge, essentially every neurological disease is associated with changes in rhythms,” Kopell says, pointing to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and epilepsy.
Many things can go wrong with rhythms, Kopell says. For example, in healthy cells, the chemical dopamine is responsible for helping some neurons communicate. In the brain of a person with Parkinson’s, the cells that produce dopamine die, changing the flow of information across neurons and wreaking havoc in the way cells communicate throughout the brain. This breakdown causes tremors and rigidity, the hallmarks of Parkinson’s disease.
The practical implications of Kopell’s research are profound. Surgeons are already manipulating brain rhythms to treat neurological diseases; one treatment involves implanting an electrode in the brain, readjusting brain rhythms to help a patient with Parkinson’s regain fluid motion. Kopell’s current research may help surgeons refine existing practices and come up with new treatment techniques.
Kopell is the author of more than 200 papers and received the 2016 Swartz Prize for Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience from the Society for Neuroscience. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the London Mathematical Society, and the winner of Sloan, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Fellowships. Although she has dedicated her career to illuminating complexities of mathematics and neuroscience, Kopell is still probing the unknown.
“I always ask my students to look down the road,” she says. “When you have the answer to this, what’s the next question you’re going to ask?”