Prof. Idan Segev.
(photo credit: JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH)
The world’s first and only multidisciplinary center for brain research -- combining physicists, molecular biologists, geneticists and numerous other specialties -- opened its three-day scientific inaugural conference on Monday at the Hebrew University’s Suzanne and Charles Goodman Brain Sciences Building.
Part of the nine-year-old Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences on Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus, the majestic new building is unlike any other building in the world, faced with an aluminum cut out depicting some of the million different neurons in mouse brains mapped by scientists.
The facility is arranged as two parallel wings around a central courtyard. The upper levels house 28 highly flexible labs linked by social hubs, which are conceived to encourage interaction and the exchange of ideas between students and staff and makes them easily visible to colleagues.
The conference, attended by over 400 neuroscientists and students from Israel and around the world, was held in the 200-seat sunken auditorium, with hundreds more seats in nearby rooms for participants watching streaming video. Planted with citrus trees and and a place for water to run along its length, the courtyard forms a quiet, reflective space and a cool microclimate shaded by a retractable roof. The whole building was planned to be environmentally friendly.
Some 300 researchers will work at the new center. These include 90 doctoral students. Fifteen new students are chosen every year among 100 applicants. All subjects are taught in English, as there are also foreign students from a variety of countries including China and India, said Prof. Idan Segev, a world-renowned expert in computational neuroscience and former director of HU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation. His research team uses computational and theoretical tools to study how nerve cells -- the elementary microchips of the brain -- compute and dynamically adapt to the ever-changing human environment.
In recent years, his group has worked with several experimental groups worldwide in the simulation-based Blue Brain research project to model a whole piece of the mammalian cortex. The ultimate goal is to unravel how local fine variations within the cortical network underlie specific behavioral function and may trigger certain brain diseases, Segev told The Jerusalem Post.
“We have done a significant part of the mouse brain, first in the cortex and then in the hippocampus. It makes it possible to understand how the brain works. Even now we have a computer model of an epileptic seizure. In five years, we will have the understanding. to make replica in the computer. Eventually, drugs could be developed to treat it and other neurological disorders,” said Segev.
“A doctorate here in brain science information and computation is very difficult to achieve. Studies cover 60 credits and take six years,” Segev continued. “Most of the brain scientists at the Weizmann Institute and the Technion are our graduates. Many also go on to hi-tech to analyze signals, deep networtks, deep learning and machine learning. One went to Orcam to develop a system to empower the blind.”
The neuroscience center regularly receives pieces of brain tumor tissue removed surgically from patients at nearby Shaare Zedek Medical Center and analyzes it in the labs.
One of the scientists who moved to the Goodman Center three days ago is Dr. Ami Citri, who specializes in the research of addiction to cocaine, opiates and other drugs.
"We study how the nervous system encodes experience. Understanding the mechanisms defining neural circuit organization in addiction will lead to unique insights into how the brain encodes experience and is expected to impact the treatment of psychiatric disorders. We still know too little about the genetic basis for addiction. I know and believe that the way to find ways to treat diseases is basic research on how the brain works.” The openness of the new building that encourages experts from many disciplines to work together is conducive to discovery, concluded Citri.
The conference was opened by HU president Prof. Asher Cohen, who noted that next week, the 100th anniversary of the cornerstone laying of the university will be observed. “There was nothing here; it was a university without a country. The neuroscience center is, as the university was then, a great vision.”
The lectures included discussions of the evolutionary aspects of cognition, molecular signatures of the human brain and the development of human skills.