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CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES IN UNDERSTANDING THE COMPLEXITY OF LIVING SYSTEMS

COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE: STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES AT UM

We conceive of this initiative as the building of a critical bridge which spans between two areas of existing strength at the University which had previously remained unconnected—neuroimaging of human cognitive processes on the one hand, and molecular and functional neurobiology on the other.

1. Neuroscience Research at Michigan:

Our University has a thriving and energetic neuroscience community, which includes over 75 laboratories distributed across many schools, departments and units. A graduate degree-granting program, the Neuroscience Program, serves to link this community. In this context, our neuroscientists are divided into four groupings: 1) Molecular and Chemical Neurobiology; 2) Developmental Neurobiology; 3) Sensory Neurobiology and 4) Integrative & Systems Neurobiology.

While the Michigan Neuroscience Doctoral Program was ranked in the middle teens in the nation in the 1993 NRC survey, there are sub-areas within the neuroscience community that have great strengths and have achieved real prominence. Of note is that the University of Michigan has a significant number of faculty members who have been elected to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Academy of Sciences who are members of the neuroscience community and have research interests of relevance to this initiative.

a) Molecular, Cellular and Functional Neurobiology: In particular, we have a strong presence in the area of molecular neurobiology, cell biology and neuronal signaling, including numerous investigators who study various types of neuronal plasticity. In addition, there is considerable strength within the Michigan neuroscience community to go beyond the molecular and cellular level, and to support this initiative in terms of interface with related areas, such as sensory perception or the interactions between emotion and cognition. An additional asset is the presence of strong clinical departments (Psychiatry and Neurology) and a well regarded research institute (MHRI), concerned with understanding the neurobiology of brain disorders.

b) Research on Human Cognition/Neuroimaging: Much of the research on human cognition currently done involves members of the Cognition and Perception Area of the Department of Psychology. Psychology has been consistently rated as one of the top three departments in the country, and a recent external review of the department was exceptionally praiseworthy of the Perception and Cognition area. In addition to this solid base within Psychology, human brain neuroscience is being pursued in various other units on campus, including MHRI, Psychiatry, the PET Center, and Radiology.

c) Weaknesses: The Missing Pieces. While we have strengths in both the molecular and the integrative levels, we would argue that we are specifically lacking in cognitive neuroscientists who carry out the kind of bridging research that was described above, and which we believe is critical for making major breakthroughs in this field.

i) In Basic Neurobiology: In spite of the wide range of neurobiological research on this campus, we have, on our official list of neuroscience faculty, only two investigators who conduct animal work and who describe learning, memory, attention or cognition as their primary area of research interest. These investigators are not currently focused on using molecular genetic techniques for their studies. Newly developed genetic strategies (e.g., targeted or inducible knockouts) are extremely useful for animal studies of learning and memory, and our presence in this area simply does not compare to our presence in some other areas of neuroscience where we cover the whole range of approaches.

ii) In Human Cognitive Neuroscience: We are also missing certain types of expertise in the human cognitive arena. Given that we need to confirm the neuroimaging results by studying the effects of lesions of a given area on cognitive function, we need one or more behavioral neurologists who can provide access to suitable patient populations for human imaging studies.

iii) In the Areas Bridging between Basic Neurobiology and Human Cognitive Neurobiology: The most significant deficit resides in research that connects between the work of the neuroimaging group on the one hand and the molecular neuroscientists on the other. We need investigators who can specifically bridge the gap between the two levels of analysis using the types of strategies that we described above. This would include primate work (behavioral, electrophysiological, molecular) as well as work on the biology and genetics of certain cognitive disorders such as schizophrenia.

2. Relevant Resources and Facilities:

The University of Michigan has very good neuroimaging facilities, including a PET center that has a long standing history of innovative research. A recent important addition is a new fMRI Center (projected starting date of 2/1/99), which will include a soon-to-be-purchased high-strength (3 Tesla) scanner that will be used solely for research purposes. The magnet will be housed in the Neuroscience Laboratory building (NSL), and that building will also contain office space for faculty and students actively engaged in fMRI research. This is a joint venture between the Department of Biomedical Engineering, the LS&A, and the Medical School.

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