Research at the Speed of Thought

University Relations, Communications | Jacob Chinn photo illustration

Our behavior, moods, movements, thoughts, memories, appetite, sleeping habits, and ways of communicating — fundamentally, everything we are — are controlled by the center of our nervous system: the brain. 

Despite recent rapid developments in brain research, the coiled mass of nearly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections that is the human brain remains difficult to unravel. Researchers still do not completely understand the mechanisms resulting in neurological and psychiatric conditions — such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism, depression, epilepsy, and schizophrenia — that affect more than 1 billion people worldwide. 

However, researchers continue to move closer to understanding and accessing previously cordoned-off territories in the brain. 

So crucial is improved understanding that in 2013 President Barack Obama announced the launch of the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative to accelerate the development and application of innovative technologies and research methods associated with the brain. 

The University of Arizona, already home to some of the foundational research into the brain, is answering the call. UA President Ann Weaver Hart has identified neuroscience as a research priority under Never Settle, the University’s strategic plan. And the UA already has begun to launch strategies to expand brain-related partnerships and research. 

For example, the UA recently announced the launch of the Center for Innovation in Brain Science, which will unite campus-wide neuroscience efforts, serve as a hub linking fundamental discoveries to solutions for important clinical problems, and provide training for the next generation of biomedical investigators.

Revolutionizing Knowledge about the Brain

The new center is an important new element of the UA’s wide-ranging research shaping global scholarship about the brain. 

UA Regents’ Professor of Psychology, Neurology, and Neuroscience Carol Barnes is director of the McKnight Brain Institute and associate director of the BIO5 Institute and also is involved with  the new center. Barnes has made significant progress in explaining the aging brain’s adaptability; she was one of the first neuroscientists to lead investigations that would ultimately help define how the brain ages and how age-related disorders occur. 

With a goal of producing therapies, Naomi Rance, associate head of pathology, received a $1.5 million National Institute on Aging grant to study how neural circuits modulate the release of estrogen and cause hot flashes. 

Anita Koshy, an assistant professor of neurology and immunobiology, has developed new models for the study of Toxoplasma gondii, a typically harmless brain parasite that infects more than 10 percent of the U.S. population and up to 80 percent of the population in other countries. Koshy’s investigations could lead to better interventions for diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

UA scientists Stephen Cowen, an assistant professor of psychology, and Michael Heien, an assistant professor of analytical chemistry, received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research program, part of the BRAIN Initiative. They will develop technology that helps scientists measure how brain cell groupings support learning, remembering, and making decisions. 

Under the direction of Charles Higgins, an associate professor of neuroscience and electrical engineering, UA scientists are designing devices that help us understand how the brain works to support artificial intelligence. 

And among the top-ranking UA programs advancing brain-related research, the speech-language pathology program ranked fifth in the 2015 U.S. News & World Report ranking of graduate schools. The UA’s audiology program ranked 12th, clinical psychology ranked 32nd, and the College of Medicine ranked 82nd. 

Understanding Human Consciousness

While many UA researchers are addressing limitations in our understanding of the brain as a physical organ, others are focusing on consciousness.  

UA anesthesiology professor Stuart Hameroff is co-founder and director of the Center for Consciousness Studies, which connects scientists, doctors, philosophers, psychologists, and others from around the world who are interested in the origins and basis of human consciousness. Hameroff led the first clinical study of brain ultrasound, finding that ultrasound vibrations applied to the brain can affect a person’s mood. 

In the area of contemplative practices, Charles Raison, a UA psychiatry professor, investigates the mental and emotional benefits of meditation. Raison, director of the UA’s newly launched Center for Compassion Studies, also has studied whole-body hyperthermia as an alternative treatment for depression, finding that heating the body can have an antidepressant effect. 

UA psychologist Alfred W. Kaszniak has for decades investigated the benefit of contemplative practices as well as the neuropsychology of age-related neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s. His research provides evidence that meditation can improve cognition, multitasking, and memory. 

Given the UA’s long-term strengths in brain-related research and the current contributions of University researchers, it’s easy to dream big. We may one day be able to delay aging, enabling people to live healthy lives beyond 100. We may be able to learn at a faster rate and retain information more reliably. We will surely develop improved therapies — and perhaps cures — for brain diseases, produce regenerative medicine for stroke patients, and more readily regulate emotional and mental stress through contemplative practices. 

  • Four pioneering scholars who are mentors and colleagues to prominent University of Arizona faculty visited campus in March to commemorate UA brain science milestones and the new Center for Innovation in Brain Science.
  • Eleanor Maguire, a neuroscientist at University College London who was named one of the “Twenty Europeans who have changed lives” by the European Union.
  • John O’Keefe, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 for his discovery of place cells.
  • May-Britt Moser, who together with Edvard Moser received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 for their discovery of grid cells.