The Brain Institute: Pitt Neuroscience Rises to the Challenge

by Jad Hilal

Neurological research is a fascinating field of study, multifaceted and intriguing in nature. There has always been a drive to understand the perplexing diseases of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's—especially now as the baby boomer generation enters senior citizenship—but not enough resources to imagine a clear, near future. Now, the University of Pittsburgh, holding an outstanding faculty of researchers possessing “the intellectual firepower to take a lead role in the nationwide effort to revolutionize the understanding of the brain,” (quote from Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg) has received government funding to become part of the massive BRAIN initiative.

This fundamentally new approach to neuroscience research was announced by President Barack Obama last April. The BRAIN initiative, or “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies,” was created for the purpose of “giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain and to better understand how we think, learn, and remember.” Patricia E. Beeson, Pitt’s Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor, believes that ”Pitt’s renowned researchers can rise to the challenge.” $100 million of government funding, along with contributions from various other organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Institutes of Health, should spark interest in new neuroscience research with a multidisciplinary, integrative approach by providing easily available funds. Through their participation with the BRAIN initiative, Pitt will attempt to rise to the occasion through the establishment of the Brain Institute.

The Brain Institute, according to David Templeton of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, will meet this challenge with 5 sub-centers: A NeuroTech Center will manipulate and develop new technology and prosthetics to restore movement to those with paralysis or to restore vision to those who are blind. More attempts will be made to tackle motor and cognitive disorders with the use of technology-based treatments. A NeuroGenetics Center will advance research towards treatments for developmental and psychiatric disorders via non-human primate models. A NeuroMapping Center will analyze the bases of human movement, cognition, emotion, learning, language and creativity. For example, one goal is to understand the mind-body connection. A NeuroLearning Center will study learning and memory to better understand their biological bases. Finally, a NeuroDiscovery Center aims to support multidisciplinary, “high-risk/high-reward” neuroscience research, modeled after the famous Bell Labs, which created an innovative environment for major scientific breakthroughs such as the transistor, the laser, and several new computer languages that revolutionized our world today.

But what can we expect? The idea of a new institute to study the brain is exciting, but how will a fundamental change in research be accomplished to achieve these goals? Those plans still remain to be revealed.

Currently, the Brain Institute will work with the resources and buildings that the University of Pittsburgh staffs, and the Institute will eventually serve as a place to bring researchers together from multiple communities to tackle the mysteries of the brain as a group.

The Institute’s founding director will be Peter Strick, Ph.D., a leading expert in the neural basis of movement and cognition. Strick, in conjunction with the expertise of other neuroscience researchers throughout the university, hope to harness the power of their combined understandings of the brain to design innovative research that can reach game-changing conclusions about the brain. With such great attention focused on neurological research already at Pitt, it is not hard to see a bright and exciting future with rapid developments on the horizon.