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Exploring the Brain: From Molecules to Behavior


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
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
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 membrane.
    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 spatial representations.
    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.



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