The Brain: Demystifying the Body’s Most Complex Organ

By Sarah Ostman

NOTE: This is an overview of the entire article, which appears in the Spring 2013 issue of McCormick Magizine.
Click here to read the entire article.

A recent report from Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering describes how five McCormick School faculty members are helping to unravel the mysteries of the brain, and create treatment modalities for physiological and psychiatric ailments from which we suffer. Read the complete article for insight into the work they are doing and its implication for us. One common aspect of these research efforts which comes out in the article is the importance of close collaborative effort between the technical world (engineers, mathematicians, computer scientists, etc.) and the life science world (doctors, medical researchers, biologists, etc.).

From fish brains, a better grasp of our own (Dr. Malcom MacIver)
Dr. MacIver and collaborators have been studying the larval zebrafish, which he calls a “model organism” whose genome has been completely mapped by scientists. According to MacIver, “Even though our last common ancestor with fish lived 420 million years ago, our current brain is basically a fish brain with some bells and whistles added.” MacIver and his collaborators have focused on goal-dependent behaviors – complicated activities like stalking and capturing prey, that require a sequence of behaviors to achieve a result. Their observations have led to further work on how the brain transforms sensory information into goal-directed movement, an essential question in neuroscience. (And check out the article to see why they created computer games for the zebrafish!)

Building Highways in the Brain (Dr. Samuel Strupp)
Neural stem cells could some day be used to regenerate damaged portions of the brain. One key missing element in accomplishing this is in providing a support system or scaffold for transported stem cells, to help them survive and proliferate. Dr Strupp is using self-organizing nanofibers to form this structure. “The dream would be to introduce these procedures in non-invasive ways and use nanomedicines to direct the stem cells and also to promote their differentiation into the right neurons in the correct part of the brain,” Stupp says.

Link between learning and depression may lead to a new drug (Dr. Joseph Moskal)
Nineteen million Americans suffer from depression, and only half respond to any given drug, and antidepressants can be addictive, cause unpleasant side effects, or take weeks to be effective. Joseph Moskai has been working on new treatments for neuropsychiatric disorders. His work has led to the creation of a program for the treatment of major depressive disorder. Moskai’s goal is to develop a faster acting drug that will remain active for weeks, with no toxic side effects.

Keeping watch on brain aneurysms (Dr. Timothy Carroll)
Five percent of Americans are living with a brain aneurysm and may not even know it. An aneurysm is an abnormal bulge in the weakened wall of a brain artery. When a brain aneurysm ruptures it is fatal in about one-half of the cases, and two-thirds of survivors suffer permanent neurological damage. Timothy Carroll is working on a “leak detector” that may be able to identify which aneurysms are likely to rupture and which will remain stable. Surgical or non-surgical interventions could then be taken in the case of the potentially dangerous aneurysms.

Filling in the blanks (Dr. William Kath)
Applied mathematician William Kath has been partnering with experimental researchers to form computer models of brain activity. His current work models how synapses work in the hippocampus – an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. This modeling could advance our understanding of how neural networks process information.