Exploring the Brain:
From Molecules to Behavior
May 4, 2001
Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system and the mind, is one
of the most dynamic and exciting areas of inquiry today and one that
affects each of us in both personal and academic ways. Three distinguished
scientists shared their view of some of the most exciting approaches
and key issues during this Honor's Day Symposium.
James Bloedel is the Vice Provost for Research and Advanced Studies
and Professor in the Departments of Health and Human Performance and Biomedical
Studies at Iowa State University.
Have you ever wondered how it is that you are able
to catch a baseball or know just when to blink? Why some movements become
second nature and why at times, it seems like learning to ride a bicycle
is impossible. Which neuronal systems help us to learn movements and what
are the problems when these systems malfunction? What happens to cause
motor function impairments such as those seen in Parkinson's Disease?
Dr. Bloedel develops useful experimental paradigms to help break down
these big questions into ones he can actually answer. He has contributed
to our knowledge of neural mechanisms underlying the control of movement,
motor learning, synaptic transmission, applied and basic aspects of pain,
and the application of neuroprosthetics to the treatment of spasticity
and seizure disorders. His "big question" has been to determine the neuronal
mechanisms underlying motor learning and the role of cerebellar systems
in the encoding and performance of limb movements. His research methods
include recording up to 24 neurons simultaneously while behaving animals
acquire new motor tasks. He uses this knowledge to help assess the basis
for motor abnormalities in patients with cerebellar deficits and patients
with Parkinson's disease.
Dr. Bloedel began his scientific career at St. Olaf
College and MD-PhD training in neuroscience at the University of Minnesota.
Subsequently, he held positions in Physiology and Neurosurgery where he
forged an interdisciplinary research lab and training program for doctoral
students and neurosurgery residents. In 1984, Dr. Bloedel took on the
challenge of invigorating the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona.
There he created a strong multi-department program with ties to the University
of Arizona and Arizona State University. Several St. Olaf students were
his guests for January term research experiences. His obvious ability
to create productive and synergistic environments for research and learning
brought him to Iowa State where he is now the Vice Provost for Research
and Advanced Studies.
Fredrick Sachs is Professor of Physiology and Biophysics and of Communicative
Disorders and Sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo
where he also directs the Center for Single Molecule Biophysics.
What do touch, hearing, ballet and gas pain have in
common? Mechanical transduction. Fred Sachs and his colleagues are interested
in all forms of mechanosensitivity and how that is transduced into signals
that a cell can read and possibly send on to the nervous system. He
and his research team use electrophysiolgical techniques (single channel
and whole cell patch clamp), atomic force microscopy (AFM), calcium
imaging, fluorimetry and membrane mechanics to investigate all aspects
of mechanotransduction. They also do molecular biology and protein chemistry
with an eye toward clinical applications. They write software and invent
all sorts of nifty bits of instrumentation . And, it is clear from their
web page, that their primary goal is to have fun and explore the widest
range of topics possible! On his current list of accomplishments is
a new Center for Single Molecule Biophysics, assembling a huge cluster
of 128 Myrinet linked processors, a very cool spider venom toxin with
medicinal promise and a pressure clamp that works on a tiny patch of
Dr. Sachs received his undergraduate degree in Physics
from the University of Rochester and, after a stint as a rocket scientist,
went on to do graduate work in Physiology at SUNY Syracuse. His passion
for mechanoreception was sparked by an accident. He has the most fun
doing off-the-wall, Friday afternoon experiments. In addition to being
awarded funds to do these amazing things he has been recognized by the
Guinness Book of Records for making the world's smallest thermometer.
Carol L. Colby
Carol L. Colby is Associate Professor of Neuroscience at The University
of Pittsburgh and the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition a joint
program of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Carol Colby studies how the cerebral cortex mediates
cognitive experience. Her work focuses on spatial cognition in humans
and other primates. This is an appealing problem for two reasons. First,
it encompasses a wide range of cognitive processes including perception,
attention, working memory and action planning. Each of these cognitive
processes contributes to the construction of internal representations
of space. Second, spatial cognition is a faculty shared by humans and
nonhuman primates and can be usefully studied in each. In humans, Dr.
Colby uses functional imaging techniques to observe frontal and parietal
cortex activation during visuospatial tasks. In monkeys, recordings
from individual cortical neurons reveal the specific aspects of information
processing carried out by different types of neurons. Dr. Colby's research
has revealed that there are fundamental parallels between awareness
of the environment and neural activity in parietal cortex. Parietal
neurons encode not only the locations of visible stimuli but also the
locations of anticipated and remembered stimuli. The key to parietal
cortex function is the recognition that it underlies visual attention.
Moreover, it contains multiple representations of space, each of which
is designed to serve distinct attentional and sensorimotor goals. Her
current research focuses on the construction of these action-oriented
Dr. Colby graduated from Radcliff with degrees in
Psychology and Social Relations. She earned her master's degree in Psychology
at Stanford then moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
for her Ph.D. in Psychology and Neurophysiology.