The third Picower-RIKEN Neuroscience Symposium, "New Frontiers in Brain Science," drew dozens of participants to hear researchers from around the world describe the state of the art of neuroscience from the molecular to the behavioral level.
The symposium was held March 26-28 in Wong Auditorium.
Sponsored by MIT's Picower Center for Learning and Memory, the symposium featured sessions on molecular and cellular neurobiology, developmental and adult plasticity, systems neuroscience and learning and memory. Keynote addresses were given by Richard Axel, a Columbia University expert on olfactory perception in the brain, and Robert Desimone, who studies how the brain's visual system works in visually complex scenes.
One of 20 speakers, Nobel laureate H. Robert Horvitz, professor of biology and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, gave an overview of genetic control of programmed cell death in C. elegans.
Programmed cell death occurs naturally in all animals and is a major feature of nervous system development. As many as 85 percent of all nerve cells created during development die by programmed cell death. Horvitz said that rather than looking at cell death as an indication of something wrong, researchers should consider it as normal as other routine cell functions. Programmed cell death gone awry can lead to disease. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's involve too much cell death, while cancer involves too little.
Horvitz's laboratory has identified the genes needed for programmed cell death. The genes, called ced-3 and ced-4 in C. elegans, have corresponding genes in humans. Another gene, ced-9, keeps cells alive and can reverse the process of cell death. Most recently, Horvitz has isolated a gene called egl-1, which also plays a key role in the sequence of events that induces a healthy cell to die and become engulfed and dismantled by its neighbors. With this knowledge, he said, it may one day be possible to create disease treatments based on reversing or enhancing programmed cell death.
Other MIT speakers included Guosong Liu, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences, who spoke on molecular mechanisms and implications for synaptic transmission and plasticity; Morgan Sheng, the Menicon Professor of Neuroscience, who spoke about molecular mechanisms in plasticity that involve the structural reorganization of synapses at several levels; and Earl K. Miller, professor of neuroscience and associate director of the Picower Center, who spoke about prefrontal cortex neurons that appear to play a role in executive brain functions such as directing attention, recalling stored memories, integrating diverse information and transmitting acquired knowledge.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 2, 2003.