Mindful Research

Exploring Inner Space

In the previous century, astronauts traveled to the moon to probe the mysteries of outer space. Closer to home is the present century’s BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) announced by President Barack Obama in 2013 to probe the enigma of the active human brain.

The collaborative initiative aims to advance the science and technologies needed to map and decipher brain activity. Charting brain functions in unprecedented detail could lead to new prevention strategies and therapies for disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury.

UC San Diego recently created two new interdisciplinary centers to advance the study of the human mind—each from a different perspective. The Center for Brain Activity Mapping (CBAM) will develop a new generation of tools to enable recording of neuronal activity throughout the brain, conduct brain-mapping experiments, and analyze the collected data. The Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination will engage the creative worlds of media, the arts, and literature to better understand the nature of imagination and develop ways to extend it.

Inaugural event for the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination

Big brain science is a good fit for UC San Diego, where neuroscience, biology, cognitive science, and nanoengineering are core institutional strengths. Private-sector financial supporters for the BRAIN Initiative include the Salk Institute and the Kavli Foundation, which are longtime UC San Diego partners. CBAM founding director Ralph Greenspan was among the original architects of a proposal leading to the BRAIN Initiative. He is also the associate director of the interdisciplinary Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind at UC San Diego (KIBM).

The Clarke Center on campus continues the legacy of Sir Arthur C. Clarke by focusing on his greatest gift: imagination. Celebrated for his multidisciplinary work in science and engineering, he is also considered one of the most inspiring and engaging science fiction writers of all time for such classics as Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In seeking a university to house the new center, the Clarke Foundation chose UC San Diego for its ability to provide a practical as well as a theoretical framework to put imagination under a microscope, to find imagination’s historic limits and go beyond them, and to promote or restore imagination’s positive use in education, commerce, science, and social change.

Rats Sing the Summertime Blues

Rats, like humans, are prone to seasonal affective disorder or SAD—with this striking difference: excessive summer light—not wintery darkness—triggers rodent doom and gloom.

Student researchers in Nick Spitzer lab

Biologists at UC San Diego have found that rats experience more anxiety and depression when the days grow longer. Their brain cells adopt a new chemical code when subjected to large changes in the day and night cycle, flipping a switch that allows an entirely different neurotransmitter to stimulate the same part of the brain. This discovery, reported in an April 2013 issue of Science, shows that the adult mammalian brain is considerably more malleable than was once thought by neurobiologists. Since rat and human brains are very similar, these findings provide greater insight into the behavioral changes in the human brain that are linked to light.

The ability of the adult brain to rewire itself suggests promising new avenues for treating human neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.