‘The human mind is the basis of everything we have’

Profs. Hermona Soreq and Raphael Malach, winners of the 2022 EMET Prize – Life Sciences category in neuroscience field, share their achievements and the never-ending attempt to understand the body.

  RAPHAEL MALACH Professor, Brain Research Weizmann Institute of Science, Neurobiology Department (photo credit: DAVID SALEM)
RAPHAEL MALACH Professor, Brain Research Weizmann Institute of Science, Neurobiology Department
(photo credit: DAVID SALEM)

The EMET Prize for Art, Science and Culture for academic and professional achievements that have made a significant contribution to society and have had a far-reaching influence in its field is being presented for the 20th year. It is for good reason that the EMET Prize has been dubbed the Israeli Nobel.

The prize is administered by the EMET Award Committee, composed of representatives of the A.M.N. Foundation for the Advancement of Science, Culture and Art in Israel and representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office. The foundation was founded in 1999 by the late Alberto Moscona Nissim, a Mexican friend of Israel, to promote research and development in Israel and help the public’s well-being.

The two winners in the field of life sciences and brain research for 2022 are Prof. Raphael Malach, professor of brain research in the Department of Neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and Prof. Hermona Soreq, a professor of molecular neuroscience at Hebrew University.

The brain is the the last frontier – it’s the most complex tissue in the human body

Malach is highly regarded for his work in the study of understanding brain processes, his discoveries about the relationship between structure and function in the human brain, and his discoveries regarding neural mechanisms in sensory and computational perception. He received the award for his achievements in the field of neurology.

Professor Soreq, who specializes in molecular neuroscience, received the award for her achievements in neuroscience.

 HERMONA SOREQ Professor, Molecular Neuroscience (credit: HEBREW UNIVERSITY) HERMONA SOREQ Professor, Molecular Neuroscience (credit: HEBREW UNIVERSITY)

“It is important to point out that my work is completely dependent and contingent on my brilliant students. I see myself as their spokesman,” says Malach. “I don’t look at it as a job. It’s brainstorming and having discussions with the students, and their enthusiasm and collaboration led to these achievements. First and foremost, it is due to them and the persistence and cooperation of the Weizmann Institute and the management team.”Malach also thanks his wife, Hava, a psychoanalyst by profession. “Hava has contributed wise counsel throughout her career at critical moments.”

Speaking of psychoanalytics, your primary research has dealt with vision and consciousness, and even the subconscious. What is its relationship to brain research?

“The great thing about science is that the tools are like those of a mechanic who repairs a car: they are sensible, simple and precise tools. One conducts an experiment and makes sure that no foreign elements are present. This refers to the use of mathematical and statistical tools. One needs to be precise because nature is very elusive.

“The amazing thing is that ultimately, we deal with questions that can be called spiritual or miraculous. The combination between the purely scientific approach and the big philosophical questions is magic, because you’re making surprising discoveries that you hadn’t thought of.”

Malach explains the most important message he wants to communicate to readers is to appreciate the wonders of science. “It is customary to think of science as a dry subject, where we sit in a laboratory and conduct research. But we’re dealing with the human brain and how it’s the basis of everything we have: our experiences, thoughts, and unconscious processes. As a neuroscientist, I can say that all of our conscious and unconscious psychological processes begin with the tissue called the human brain.”

Neuroscience is a broad field and you’ve been engaged in the study of vision for many years. How did you get into that area of research?

“It’s a shame that when a person wakes up in the morning, rubs his eyes and sees a flower or tree, he treats it like any flower or tree. How we eventually perceive a flower or a tree is a vibrant and creative process. We’re participating in the process of building the image. It’s not like a camera that you use to take pictures. Commentary, life experience and expectations are all added, and all the above enter the phenomenon known as a flower. What I’m trying to understand is what’s going on in the brain while we’re creating these images.”

What did you learn?

“We did a great deal of research that deciphered the brain centers at the rear of the brain and we discovered a very important area where the entire process of building the image takes place. Today, there are advanced methods of brain imaging using an MRI device, a technological breakthrough that allows the brain to be studied without intrusion. Through imaging, we can see a person’s brain centers operating when he sees and imagines images.”

One of the studies that Malach’s team has been conducting in recent years is to examine what is happening in our brains in a completely spontaneous way. “It’s taking it to the other extreme and saying ‘Let’s see what happens in the brain not when we stimulate it from the outside, but when we let it behave completely spontaneously.’ We remove the person from the environment, we do not stimulate him in any way and we see what his brain produces spontaneously.

All of our conscious and unconscious psychological processes begin with the tissue called the human brain

“We have discovered that fascinating brain processes are emerging. We have begun to see results in recent years that are increasingly reinforcing the idea that this natural and spontaneous activity is related to creativity. A person is looking for an idea or has a problem that concerns him and he can’t solve it, and then he leaves it, takes a shower, and suddenly the solution appears in his consciousness. The question is, how does this happen? It’s a process that happens to us below the threshold of consciousness and is more powerful than anything else.”

Will the studies on the psychological, emotional and mental aspects form the basis of something medical in the future?

“Certainly. When we try to understand something like a human brain, we are fumbling in the dark. Fumbling is basic research. We’re trying to understand the brain, not solve Alzheimer’s disease. But throughout the history of basic research, the understanding that comes from pure curiosity has often led to significant breakthroughs and a solution to severe diseases.”

“This has not happened yet in a revolutionary way to change the clinical condition of brain diseases, which are the diseases that are the most complicated to solve. But I believe that our basic research, although not intended to solve the problem of depression, for example, may indirectly illuminate a discovery that may help in the future.”

Not afraid of RNA

Soreq’s research has led to scientific breakthroughs and contributed to the development of drugs for diseases of the nervous system and the brain. Soreq is currently engaged in a new study on nerve cell mortality in Parkinson’s disease. “We are at the stage of the process where I wake up at night and remember that there is another important thing that I need to investigate.”Soreq is also thrilled to receive the award but points out that it is not the work of one person. “It’s teamwork, and everyone has their own specialty and their contribution, especially in a field like life sciences.”

What brought you the award are, among other things, your research in the field of RNA control in the brain. Until two years ago, most of the population was unfamiliar with the term, but due to the coronavirus, it entered the public consciousness.

“To explain exactly what it is, let’s think of gene expression as a pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is the DNA, which each of us has inherited in one form or another from our parents. At the bottom of the pyramid are the proteins, which do not change, and in the middle is the RNA. There are many different types of RNA.

“Once you focus on a type of RNA, say as it relates to the control mechanism that interests us, we ask different questions such as, ‘What happens with aging? What happens in inflammatory situations? What happens in stressful situations? What happens in mood diseases and neurodegenerative diseases?’

“Winning the award was very exciting,” says Soreq. This is a combined and complementary victory with that of Prof. Rafi Malach, who examines brain mapping, which is entirely different from our genetic work and complements the other. I’ve admired Prof. Ruth Lapidoth (EMET prize winner in the Social Sciences) for many years, so it’s a great honor.”

Soreq is the head of the Alexander Silverman Institute of Life Sciences, and the Edmund and Lily Safra Brain Research Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences. Her research and efforts have led, among other things, to the development of innovative drugs to prevent and treat PTSD and neurodegenerative diseases of the brain and nervous system.

After two years of the pandemic and being under constant terrorist threats, how much does stress affect human beings and Israelis in particular?

“We have a different perspective in Israel. We tested the degree of anxiety alongside the causes of stress. We did a study with 18,000 subjects who report each year for medical examinations and asked them to fill out two other things on the form: To what extent they are anxious about the impact of terrorism on their daily life and to measure their heart rate. We looked at the pulse rate, looked at the degree of anxiety that these people expressed and tested the causes of stress, and found a correlation.”

Are some people more resistant to stress?

“No doubt about it. Men and women also have different levels of resilience. There are differences between the brains of women and men, even though I have colleagues who may not like to hear it, but it’s a fact. When I say differences, it means that the genes that are expressed in the brain are different.”

How does this manifest itself?

“You see the difference, for example, in people who suffer from mental illness. Men suffer from schizophrenia at a younger age than women. In bipolar diseases and depression, women have more acute symptoms, which are not addressed in drug development. Women also do not tend to go to clinical trials and what results from this is that half of humanity is treated with drugs developed and tested on the other half.”

What influenced your decision to go into brain research?

“I was actually studying for a PhD in the department of biochemistry, but in fact, it was in molecular biology. They just didn’t call it that at the time. As a student, I checked control mechanisms for RNA expressions. I went to New York for postdoctoral research in advanced methods and wanted to choose a subject that would combine biology with the things that interest me.

“That naturally led me to the brain. It’s the last frontier. It’s the most complex tissue there is and has more genes expressed in it than any other tissue. It has many question marks and is related to topics outside of biology of which I care.”

Like body and soul? Is there even a place for body and mind matters in neuroscience?

“For example, a study that we are currently preparing deals with the question of what happens to small mammals subjected to stress when they are very young. It is possible to do such an experiment in mice by trimming the whiskers on one side. We did it when the mouse was seven days old and at three months and noticed that the mice were humiliated. They grew up in a stressful situation and remain with a mental health problem for the rest of their lives. We see that the very growth of neurons in their brains every moment changes on such a small thing, which is amazing.”

What do you think about artificial intelligence? Will we be able to program the brain?

“We have more to learn until we can program the brain, but it’s good that they are trying. Looking at brain research 100 years ago, there were very talented people using microscopes and drawing accurately. 50 years later, electronics engineers entered the field and brain research was conducted by measuring electricity. Today, we combine that with molecular testing, and as the fields integrate and evolve, the significance of the findings becomes more important. It’s fascinating and there is nothing like it.”

This article was written in cooperation with the A.M.N. Foundation for the Advancement of Science, Culture and Art in Israel.

Translated by Alan Rosenbaum.