A brainy and passionate man

Brain science is clearly the field of the future, and one to persuade one’s children to pursue.

April 19, 2010 18:55
3 minute read.
Nerve cells in the cerebral cortex of a Brainbow t

brainbow nerve cells 311. (photo credit: Brainbow/Idan Segev)


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The first thing I noticed when Judy Siegel-Itzkovich and I met Prof. Idan Segev in his office at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus was his wild, wiry hair. As he began speaking, I couldn’t help thinking that his hair style not only hides a big brain, but like his sharp mind underneath, it darts in different directions in an apparently spontaneous fashion.

It is his passion for his profession that permeates our conversation, and by the end of the 90 minutes we spend with him, I am a convert: brain science is clearly the field of the future, and one to persuade one’s children to pursue.

“When I’m in the shower, I don’t think about science,” he confides, smiling. “I think about the young Israelis who come and study here, who could make a huge amount of money in business and so forth. I really love my students.”

He is modest about his own achievements and visibly shocked when we tell him that a Google search for his name yields over 10,000 hits. But he is quick to praise colleagues in his field, some of whom he thinks deserve a Nobel prize, and likes to point out that Albert Einstein – considered the greatest mind in history – had a small brain that weighed only 1.5 kg.

Segev’s “Blue Brain Project” is an ambitious attempt to recreate parts of the human brain (and the whole brain by a target date of 2030) and understand how it works. It also happens to be putting Israel at the forefront of the theoretical side of a worldwide breakthrough in brain science.

“This ‘brain blossoming,’ as we call it, is happening in 10 centers worldwide, including here in Jerusalem,” he says. “The mathematical model is my part of the project. We are a central node. If I was not doing the mathematical model of cells, there would be no simulation of the brain. You can play movies, but it’s the electrical activity that I produce.”

Segev speaks excellent English, albeit with a slight Israeli accent, yet he does not attribute his language skills to the fact that he was born in London a year after the State of Israel was declared.

“It was by chance, a historical accident,” he explains. “I was born to Israeli parents who happened to be living in England, but they returned to Israel after a year, so it’s not aliya: I am absolutely, totally Israeli.”

Segev is a professor in Computational Neuroscience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation (ICNC).

It was at the Hebrew University that he received his B.Sc. (1973) in Mathematics and Ph.D. (1982) in Experimental and Theoretical Neurobiology.

According to his official biography, his research team studies how neurons, the elementary microchips of the brain, compute and dynamically adapt to our ever-changing environment.

In recent years, Segev’s laboratory has worked jointly with experimental groups worldwide in an endeavor to model in detail the cortical column – a functional unit containing thousands of intensely connected networks of neurons.

“The cortical column is 1 mm. by 2 mm. thick and like a barrel [of a gun], containing about 50,000 cells,” he says, adding: “We want to simulate part of the brain in fine detail, which we’ve already done with the cortical column, and eventually the whole brain.”

The ultimate goal, he says, is to unravel how fine variations within the cortical network give rise to particular brain diseases.

Once the origin of diseases is understood, presumably, they can then be reversed and even cured.

Last year, Segev participated in the Hebrew University’s pioneering program, “Scientists on the Rails,” featuring lecturers on commuter trains between Modi’in and Tel Aviv.

Segev says he is also interested in the connection between art and the brain and recently edited Artists, a book of original etchings by 10 top Israeli artists spurred by an encounter with ICNC neuroscientists.

“I think artists instinctively understand the brain, beyond the biology of it, and it’s only natural for us to work together,” he says.

Showing us a computer simulation of a minute camera entering the brain of a mouse, with millions of blue genes in what looks like a dense forest of cells, he adds: “You can make very nice movies out of this, and I’m sure Disney would be interested in this.”

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