Clive, an eminent British musician, suffered a brain disease in 1984 that robbed him of his short-term memory. Although he can still perform and conduct new music, within seconds of completing a piece Clive has no recollection of his actions. If he hears his wife's footsteps, he recognizes and embraces her. If she appears without warning, she is a stranger.
Clive is one of the people with enigmatic brain disorders studied by author and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks. Sacks spoke Dec. 1 as part of a daylong celebration, "The Future of the Brain," held in honor of the establishment of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory in its new home, the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex at 43 Vassar St.
Sacks, whose nine books include "Awakenings," on which the 1990 film starring Robin Williams as Sacks was based, told an overflow dinner crowd at the Hotel@MIT that neurologists and clinicians will need to collaborate to solve the mystery of patients such as Clive.
The role memory plays in our sense of self was one of the many themes explored by five Nobel laureates and other eminent brain researchers during the day's events, which were attended by Picower Institute benefactors Barbara and Jeffry Picower and included the unveiling of the Picower Institute's manifesto in the lobby of the new facility. The manifesto, in white letters on the wall opposite the main entrance, proclaims the Picower Institute's mission to "understand the mysteries of the mind through study of the brain."
Attendees at the inaugural symposium for the Picower Institute filled the main level and balconies overlooking the new building's sweeping atrium, a 90-foot-high open space filled with natural light and dramatic angles and curves.
In welcoming remarks, MIT President Susan Hockfield said, "I am profoundly optimistic about the future of brain science. The work conducted at the Picower Institute will go a very long way toward relieving crippling diseases of the brain, improving education and enhancing the qualities of our lives. Work at Picower will change the future of the brain itself. "
Joining Nobel laureate and Picower Institute Director Susumu Tonegawa in what National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" host Ira Flatow called an "unprecedented assemblage of Nobel scientists" were fellow laureates Sydney Brenner of the Salk Institute; Richard Axel and Eric Kandel of Columbia University; and DNA pioneer James Watson of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
The speakers gave their visions for the future individually and as part of a panel moderated by Flatow.
Tonegawa said memory provides our sense of self. Memory is the "mental glue that binds your life experiences. Life without memory is life with no connections to your past, present and future and no ties to the events and people around you." He said that while scientists are accumulating knowledge rapidly about the brain, a novel non-invasive technology with greater spatial and temporal resolution is needed to really understand the human brain.
Brenner said the challenge for today's researchers is to "gain an understanding of how the internal description written in the DNA language of our genes gets transformed into fully functioning organisms." Axel, who studies the olfactory system, said that although we now understand how the brain perceives stimuli such as odor, the question remains of how different patterns of activity sparked by different odors translate into behavior. Kandel, who said he once aspired to be a psychoanalyst, said he hopes the latest imaging techniques that provide a window into the working human brain will lead to new approaches to psychotherapy and understanding of mental illness.
Watson, who with Francis Crick elucidated DNA's double helix, said that the brain would not be fully understood until scientists understand how and why it evolved.
As a group, the scientists agreed that nature and nurture are inextricably co-dependent -- that the brain, although innately hard-wired, needs input from the outside world to develop properly. They also said that the search for a concrete definition for consciousness would one day disappear, replaced by knowledge of how the brain's many systems work together to create the mind.
In the first afternoon session, "Change Your Mind: Memory and Disease," Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, talked about how social memories governing fear and happiness differ from other kinds of memory; Li-Huei Tsai of Harvard University described how a single gene appears to be responsible for the neuronal loss, atrophy and plaques of Alzheimer's disease; and Kerry Ressler of Emory University described how a generically available drug may help eliminate or overwrite the deeply disturbing memories of post-traumatic stress disorder victims.
The second afternoon session, "Expand Your Mind: Getting a Grasp on Consciousness," featured chemist and author Alexander Shulgin, known as "Dr. Ecstasy," promoting the idea that psychedelics tested in human subjects can lead to medical and basic science breakthroughs; Christoph Koch of Caltech explored the biological basis of consciousness; and philosopher Patricia Churchland of the University of California at San Diego spoke about the relationship between traditional philosophical inquiry and brain research. It's unlikely, she said, that humans have "a structure and function different from other animals," adding that other mammals and even insects may possess some characteristics of consciousness and self-awareness.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 7, 2005 (download PDF).