TAG: "brain"

8 top trends in health and science in 2015


From hacking the brain to diagnosing diseases through DNA.

With advances in technology and better understanding of people, the health sciences are constantly pushing toward more effective treatments and cures. The question is, where will we see the next breakthroughs?

Experts across UC San Francisco were asked to identify what’s ahead in key areas from basic science to digital health, from aging research to cancer treatments, from approaches in the lab to access at the hospital.

Here are some of the hottest areas in health and science to look out for in 2015:

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2014: The year in review at UCSF

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First real-time MRI-guided brain surgery for Parkinson’s in SoCal


Deep brain stimulator also can be used to treat other movement disorders.

By Jackie Carr, UC San Diego

Neurosurgeons at UC San Diego Health System are the first in Southern California to implant a deep brain stimulator (DBS) in a patient with Parkinson’s disease using real-time 3-D magnetic resonance image (MRI) guidance.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. Symptoms include shaking, slowness of movement and difficulty walking. These unpredictable movements are caused by abnormal nerve cell activity in the brain. DBS therapy, like a heart pacemaker, transmits electrical signals to help restore normal activity.

Traditionally, DBS surgery is conducted while the patient is awake, and under pain management. This approach allows surgeons to continuously monitor the patient’s brain function and to ensure accurate placement of the device.

“Now, for some patients, this surgery can be performed in the MRI suite under general anesthesia so that a patient can sleep during the placement of the DBS electrodes,” David Barba, M.D., director of functional neurosurgery, UC San Diego Health System. “Within a few days of DBS therapy, many patients can resume life’s everyday activities.”

“Placing a DBS device while a patient is awake can be exhausting for the patient due to the length of the procedure and the need to perform neurologic testing in the operating room,” added Clark Chen, M.D., Ph.D., director of stereotactic and radiosurgery, UC San Diego Health System. “Fortunately, with continuous real-time MRI monitoring, we can now place the electrode in a safe location that provides maximal neurological benefit while the patient is under the comfort of general anesthesia.”

Bob S. Carter, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chief of neurosurgery and co-director of the UC San Diego Neurological Institute, said the collaborative endeavor introduces a new technology strategy to improve the care of patients with Parkinson’s and other diseases.

“Our capacity to perform these procedures will be further enhanced in the new A. Vassiliadis Family Hospital for Advanced Surgery at Jacobs Medical Center, which opens in 2016,” said Carter.

DBS also can be used to treat other movement disorders, including dystonia, essential tremor and obsessive compulsive disorder. It is in clinical trial testing as treatment for depression.

UC San Diego Health System is an internationally recognized leader in functional neurosurgery. Barba is a pioneer in the neurosurgical treatment of patients affected with movement disorders. Chen is an expert in MRI guided neurosurgery.

To learn more about MRI-guided DBS placement, please visit: health.ucsd.edu.

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Immune cells in brain respond to fat in diet, causing mice to eat


UCSF study indicates that microglia may play key role in shaping the brain’s response to diet.

By Jeffrey Norris, UC San Francisco

Immune cells perform a previously unsuspected role in the brain that may contribute to obesity, according to a new study by UC San Francisco researchers.

When the researchers fed mice a diet high in saturated milk fats, microglia, a type of immune cell, underwent a population explosion in the brain region called the hypothalamus, which is responsible for feeding behavior.

The researchers used an experimental drug and, alternatively, a genetic approach to knock out these microglia, and both strategies resulted in a complete loss of microglia-driven inflammation in the hypothalamus. Remarkably, doing so also resulted in the mice eating less food each day than did their untreated counterparts, without any apparent ill effects.

Furthermore, removing microglia from mice only reduced food intake when the content of saturated fat from milk in their diets was high. It had no effect on mice fed a low-fat diet or a diet high in other types of fat, including olive oil or coconut oil.

UCSF postdoctoral fellow Martin Valdearcos Contreras, Ph.D., first author on the paper, published in the Dec. 11 issue of Cell Reports, discovered that when mice consumed large amounts of saturated fats, the fat entered their brains and accumulated in the hypothalamus.

According to the senior scientist for the study, Suneil Koliwad, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the UCSF Diabetes Center, the microglia sense the saturated fat and send instructions to brain circuits in the hypothalamus. These instructions are important drivers of food intake, he said.

Microglia are primarily known for causing inflammation in the brain in response to infection or injury, but the new study indicates that they also play a key role in shaping the brain’s response to diet, according to Koliwad.

Outside the brain — in fat tissue, the liver, and muscles — other immune cells, called macrophages, trigger inflammation in response to “diet-induced obesity,” Koliwad said. This inflammation is implicated in triggering insulin resistance, a late stage event on the road to type 2 diabetes.

However, overeating causes microglia to accumulate much more quickly in the hypothalamus than macrophages accumulate in peripheral tissues, Koliwad said. But until now, the effects of this microglial build-up were unknown.

“As opposed to classically defined inflammation, in which immune cells build up in tissues where environmental insults have created disarray, microglial activation in the brain may be a part of a normal physiological process to remodel brain function in response to changes in the composition of food intake,” Koliwad said.

“When the intake of saturated fats is chronically high, this microglial sensory network may be hijacked, and this has the potential to mediate increased food consumption and promote more rapid weight gain.

“Targeting microglia may therefore be a novel way to control food intake in the face of consumption of a fat-rich diet, something that is quite common in today’s world,” he said.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and by the UCSF Diabetes Family Fund.

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Obese children’s brains are more responsive to sugar


UC San Diego study detects brain differences in children as young as 8.

By Christina Johnson, UC San Diego

A new study led by researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine finds that the brains of obese children literally light up differently when tasting sugar.

Published online in International Journal of Obesity, the study does not show a causal relationship between sugar hypersensitivity and overeating, but it does support the idea that the growing number of America’s obese youth may have a heightened psychological reward response to food.

This elevated sense of “food reward” – which involves being motivated by food and deriving a good feeling from it – could mean some children have brain circuitries that predispose them to crave more sugar throughout life.

“The take-home message is that obese children, compared to healthy weight children, have enhanced responses in their brain to sugar,” said first author Kerri Boutelle, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychiatry and founder of the university’s Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research (CHEAR).

“That we can detect these brain differences in children as young as 8 years old is the most remarkable and clinically significant part of the study,” she said.

For the study, the UC San Diego team scanned the brains of 23 children, ranging in age from 8 to 12, while they tasted one-fifth of a teaspoon of water mixed with sucrose (table sugar). The children were directed to swirl the sugar-water mix in the mouth with their eyes closed, while focusing on its taste.

Ten of the children were obese and 13 had healthy weights, as classified by their body mass indices. All had been pre-screened for factors that could confound the results. For example, they were all right-handed and none suffered from psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety or ADHD. They also all liked the taste of sucrose.

The brain images showed that obese children had heightened activity in the insular cortex and amygdala, regions of the brain involved in perception, emotion, awareness, taste, motivation and reward.

Notably, the obese children did not show any heightened neuronal activity in a third area of the brain – the striatum – that is also part of the response-reward circuitry and whose activity has, in other studies, been associated with obesity in adults.

The striatum, however, does not develop fully until adolescence. The researchers said one of the interesting aspects of the study is that the brain scans may be documenting, for the first time, the early development of the food reward circuitry in pre-adolescents.

“Any obesity expert will tell you that losing weight is hard and that the battle has to be won on the prevention side,” said Boutelle, who is also a clinical psychologist. “The study is a wake-up call that prevention has to start very early because some children may be born with a hypersensitivity to food rewards or they may be able to learn a relationship between food and feeling better faster than other children.”

According to studies, children who are obese have an 80 to 90 percent chance of growing up to become obese adults. Currently about one in three children in the U.S. is overweight or obese.

To learn more CHEAR and its weight management programs for children, call (855) 827-3498 or email chear@ucsd.edu.

Co-authors include Christina Wierenga, UC San Diego and Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System; Amanda Bischoff-Grethe, Andrew James Melrose and Emily Grenesko-Stevens, UC San Diego; and Martin Paulus, Laureate Institute for Brain Research, Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Funding for the study was provided, in part, by National Institutes of Health (grants R01DK094475, R01 DK075861, K02HL112042, MH046001, MH042984, MH066122, MH001894 and MH092793).

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Multiple, short learning sessions strengthen memory formation in fragile X


UC Irvine study suggests the method could aid children with the autism-related condition.

Christine Gall and Gary Lynch found that fragile X model mice trained in three short, repetitious episodes spaced one hour apart performed as well on memory tests as normal mice. (Photo by Chris Nugent, UC Irvine)

By Tom Vasich, UC Irvine

A learning technique that maximizes the brain’s ability to make and store memories may help overcome cognitive issues seen in fragile X syndrome, a leading form of intellectual disability, according to UC Irvine neurobiologists.

Christine Gall, Gary Lynch and colleagues found that fragile X model mice trained in three short, repetitious episodes spaced one hour apart performed as well on memory tests as normal mice. These same fragile X rodents performed poorly on memory tests when trained in a single, prolonged session – which is a standard K-12 educational practice in the U.S.

“These results are dramatic and never seen before. Fragile X model mice trained using this method had memory scores equal to those of control animals,” said Gall, professor of anatomy & neurobiology and neurobiology & behavior. “Our findings suggest an easily implemented, noninvasive strategy for treating an important component of the cognitive problems found in patients with fragile X syndrome.”

Fragile X syndrome is an inherited genetic condition that causes intellectual and developmental disabilities and is commonly associated with autism. Symptoms include difficulty learning new skills or information.

It’s been known since classic 19th century educational psychology studies that people learn better when using multiple, short training episodes rather than one extended session.

Two years ago, the Lynch and Gall labs found out why. They discovered a biological mechanism that contributes to the enhancing effect of spaced training: Brain synapses – which are the connection points among neurons that transfer signals – encode memories in the hippocampus much better when activated briefly at one-hour intervals.

The researchers found that synapses have either low or high thresholds for learning-related modifications and that the high-threshold group requires hourlong delays between activation in order to store new information.

“This explains why prolonged ‘cramming’ is inefficient – only one set of synapses is being engaged,” said Lynch, professor of psychiatry & human behavior and anatomy & neurobiology. “Repeated short training sessions, spaced in time, engage multiple sets of synapses. It’s as if your brain is working at full power.”

The finding was significant, Gall added, because it demonstrated that a ubiquitous and fundamental feature of psychology can, at least in part, be explained by neurobiology.

It also gave the researchers time-sequencing rules for optimizing forms of learning dependent upon the hippocampus – utilized in the current study. Results appear in the Nov. 25 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The UCI scientists stress that the new brain-based training protocols, if applied during childhood, have the potential to offset many aspects of fragile X-related autism. “We believe that synaptic memory mechanisms are used during postnatal development to build functional brain circuits for dealing with confusing environments and social interactions,” Lynch said. “Implementing the brain-based rules during childhood training could result in lifelong benefits for patients.”

He and Gall look forward to collaborating with UCI’s Center for Autism Research & Translation to further evaluate the effect of multiple, short training episodes on learning in fragile X children.

Ronald Seese led the study as part of his work toward a Ph.D. and was assisted by Kathleen Wang and Yue Qin Yao. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation (grant 1146708), the National Institutes of Health (grants MH082042 and NS04260), and the William & Nancy Thompson Family Foundation, via UCI’s Center for Autism Research & Translation.

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Scientists detect brain network that gives humans superior reasoning skills


Findings suggest subtle shifts in frontal, parietal lobes of brain linked to superior cognition.

By Yasmin Anwar, UC Berkeley

When it comes to getting out of a tricky situation, we humans have an evolutionary edge over other primates. Take, as a dramatic example, the Apollo 13 voyage in which engineers, against all odds, improvised a chemical filter on a lunar module to prevent carbon dioxide buildup from killing the crew.

UC Berkeley scientists have found mounting brain evidence that helps explain how humans have excelled at “relational reasoning,” a cognitive skill in which we discern patterns and relationships to make sense of seemingly unrelated information, such as solving problems in unfamiliar circumstances.

Their findings, reported in today’s (Dec. 3) issue of the journal Neuron, suggest that subtle shifts in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain are linked to superior cognition. Among other things, the frontoparietal network plays a key role in analysis, memory retrieval, abstract thinking and problem-solving, and has the fluidity to adapt according to the task at hand.

“This research has led us to take seriously the possibility that tweaks to this network over an evolutionary timescale could help to explain differences in the way that humans and other primates solve problems,” said UC Berkeley neuroscientist Silvia Bunge, the study’s principal investigator.

“It’s not just that we humans have language at our disposal. We also have the capacity to compare and integrate several pieces of information in a way that other primates don’t,” she added.

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Research aims to help veterans with hearing loss


UC Riverside team tries crowdfunding to support project.

Alison Smith, a disabled veteran and UC Riverside graduate student, is part of a research team that is developing a brain-training game to help veterans suffering combat-related hearing loss.

By Bettye Miller, UC Riverside

Many combat veterans suffer hearing loss from blast waves that makes it difficult to understand speech in noisy environments — a condition called auditory dysfunction — which may lead to isolation and depression. There is no known treatment.

Building on promising brain-training research at UC Riverside related to improving vision, researchers at UC Riverside and the National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research are developing a novel approach to treat auditory dysfunction by training the auditory cortex to better process complex sounds.

The team is seeking public support to raise the estimated $100,000 needed to fund research and develop a computer game they believe will improve the brain’s ability to process and distinguish sounds.

“This is exploratory research, which is extremely hard to fund,” said Aaron Seitz, UCR professor of neuropsychology. “Most grants fund basic science research. We are creating a brain-training game based on our best understanding of auditory dysfunction. There’s enough research out there to tell us that this is a solvable problem. These disabled veterans are a patient population that has no other resource.”

Seitz said the research team is committed to the project regardless of funding, but donations will accelerate development of the brain-training game by UCR graduate and undergraduate students in computer science and neuroscience; pilot studies on UCR students with normal hearing; testing the game with veterans; and refining the game to the point that it can be released for public use.

Auditory dysfunction is progressive, said Alison Smith, a graduate student in neuroscience studying hearing loss in combat vets who is a disabled veteran. Nearly 8 percent of combat veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from traumatic brain injury, she said. Of those, a significant number complain about difficulty understanding speech in noisy environments, even though they show no external hearing loss.

“Approximately 10 percent of the civilian population is at risk for noise-induced hearing loss, and there have been more than 20,000 significant cases of hearing loss per year since 2004,” added Smith, who served in the Army National Guard as a combat medic for five years.

This research also may help many other hearing-impaired populations, including musicians, mechanics and machinists; reduce the effects of age-related hearing loss; and aid individuals with hearing aids and cochlear implants.

“This kind of training has never been done before,” Seitz said. “We’re taking what we know about the building blocks of speech and what we know about the auditory cortex and the building blocks of hearing, and developing a way to retrain the auditory cortex to process complex sounds.”

The goal is to revive the auditory processing system that was damaged by blast waves and improve hearing, he said. “They may not hear as well as they did before the damage occurred, but we’re hoping to get them to a more normal point.”

UC Riverside launched the research project after audiologists at the Veterans Administration hospital in Loma Linda approached UCR neuroscientist Khaleel Razak about the hearing difficulties faced by returning combat veterans after he presented a seminar on age-related hearing loss. Razak is a consultant on the project.

In addition to Seitz and Smith, team members include Frederick J. Gallun, a researcher at the National Center for Rehabilitative Auditory Research and associate professor in otolaryngology and the Neuroscience Graduate Program at Oregon Health and Science University; Victor Zordan, UCR associate professor of computer science who specializes in video game design and intelligent systems; and Dominique Simmons, a cognitive psychology graduate student studying audiovisual speech perception.

Seitz said he hopes to begin testing the game on veterans by summer 2015.

“Whether or not you agree with the war, these are people who have gone overseas to serve their country,” he said. “When they come back, it’s our responsibility to care for them. We have to find a way to help our disabled vets. Right now, there’s nothing out there for veterans who are suffering this kind of hearing loss. This is our best shot.”

Contributions made through experiment.com are not tax-deductible. Individuals who wish to make a tax-deductible donation may give to the UCR Brain Game Center through UCR Online Giving and use the “special instructions” field to designate the gift for the “Can brain training help soldiers with brain injury regain hearing?” project.

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Copper on the brain at rest


Berkeley Lab reports proper copper levels essential to spontaneous neural activity.

Chris Chang, Berkeley Lab (Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab)

By Lynn Yarris, Berkeley Lab

In recent years it has been established that copper plays an essential role in the health of the human brain. Improper copper oxidation has been linked to several neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Menkes’ and Wilson’s. Copper has also been identified as a critical ingredient in the enzymes that activate the brain’s neurotransmitters in response to stimuli. Now a new study by researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has shown that proper copper levels are also essential to the health of the brain at rest.

“Using new molecular imaging techniques, we’ve identified copper as a dynamic modulator of spontaneous activity of developing neural circuits, which is the baseline activity of neurons without active stimuli, kind of like when you sleep or daydream, that allows circuits to rest and adapt,” says Chris Chang, a faculty chemist with Berkeley Lab’s Chemical Sciences Division who led this study. “Traditionally, copper has been regarded as a static metabolic cofactor that must be buried within enzymes to protect against the generation of reactive oxygen species and subsequent free radical damage. We’ve shown that dynamic and loosely bound pools of copper can also modulate neural activity and are essential for the normal development of synapses and circuits.”

Chang , who also holds appointments with UC Berkeley’s Chemistry Department and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), is the corresponding author of a paper that describes this study  in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The paper is titled “Copper is an endogenous modulator of neural circuit spontaneous activity.” Co-authors are Sheel Dodani, Alana Firl, Jefferson Chan, Christine Nam, Allegra Aron, Carl Onak, Karla Ramos-Torres, Jaeho Paek, Corey Webster and Marla Feller.

Although the human brain accounts for only 2 percent of total body mass, it consumes 20 percent of the oxygen taken in through respiration. This high demand for oxygen and oxidative metabolism has resulted in the brain harboring the body’s highest levels of copper, as well as iron and zinc. Over the past few years, Chang and his research group at UC Berkeley have developed a series of fluorescent probes for molecular imaging of copper in the brain.

“A lack of methods for monitoring dynamic changes in copper in whole living organisms has made it difficult to determine the complex relationships between copper status and various stages of health and disease,” Chang said. “We’ve been designing fluorescent probes that can map the movement of copper in live cells, tissue or even model organisms, such as mice and zebra fish.”

For this latest study, Chang and his group developed a fluorescent probe called Copper Fluor-3 (CF3) that can be used for one- and two-photon imaging of copper ions. This new probe allowed them to explore the potential contributions to cell signaling of loosely bound forms of copper in hippocampal neurons and retinal tissue.

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Brain reacts differently to virtual reality and real-world environments


UCLA findings provide insight into how doctors could restore human memory.

Researchers led by UCLA’s Mayank Mehta were surprised to find that neurons in rats’ brains reacted entirely differently to virtual and real environments. (Photo by Facebook Recommend 0 Tweet Email Print Mayank Mehta Reed Hutchinson, UCLA)

By Stuart Wolpert, UCLA

UCLA neurophysicists have found that space-mapping neurons in the brain react differently to virtual reality than they do to real-world environments. Their findings could be significant for people who use virtual reality for gaming, military, commercial, scientific or other purposes.

“The pattern of activity in a brain region involved in spatial learning in the virtual world is completely different than when it processes activity in the real world,” said Mayank Mehta, a UCLA professor of physics, neurology and neurobiology in the UCLA College and the study’s senior author. “Since so many people are using virtual reality, it is important to understand why there are such big differences.”

The study was published today (Nov. 24) in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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Study puts more natural movement for artificial limbs within reach


Providing simple neural signals to brain implants could stand in for body’s own feedback system.

By Pete Farley, UC San Francisco

In new research that brings natural movement by artificial limbs closer to reality, UC San Francisco scientists have shown that monkeys can learn simple brain-stimulation patterns that represent their hand and arm position, and can then make use of this information to precisely execute reaching maneuvers.

Goal-directed arm movements involving multiple joints, such as those we employ to extend and flex the arm and hand to pick up a coffee cup, are guided both by vision and by proprioception — the sensory feedback system that provides information on the body’s overall position in three-dimensional space. Previous research has shown that movement is impaired when either of these sources of information is compromised.

The most sophisticated artificial limbs, which are controlled via brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that transmit neural commands to robotic mechanisms, rely on users’ visual guidance and do not yet incorporate proprioceptive feedback. These devices, though impressive, lack the fluidity and accuracy of skilled natural reaching movements, said Philip Sabes, Ph.D., senior author of the new study, published today (Nov. 24) in the Advance Online Edition of Nature Neuroscience.

“State-of-the-art BMIs generate movements that are slow and labored — they veer around a lot, with many corrections,” said Sabes, whose research to improve prosthetics has been funded by the REPAIR (Reorganization and Plasticity to Accelerate Injury Recovery) initiative of the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA). “Achieving smooth, purposeful movements will require proprioceptive feedback.”

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Total recall


UC Irvine memory expert James McGaugh recalls the heady days of a young university.

UC Irvine neuroscientist and founding faculty member James McGaugh stands in front of the campus building that is named after him. (Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine)

By Scott Martelle

It was the winter of 1964, and James McGaugh already had what he considered a dream job. He’d earned a doctorate in psychology at UC Berkeley in 1959, taught for a few years at San Jose State College, done some postdoctoral work in Rome for a year, and then landed at the University of Oregon teaching and researching how the human brain works. “I was treated like a little prince up there,” McGaugh says. “They gave me everything I wanted. … I loved it there.”

Then the phone rang. McGaugh’s dissertation adviser from Berkeley was on the line, telling him about this new campus the University of California was creating on empty pastureland in a place called the Irvine Ranch. He suggested McGaugh put his name in to become the founding chair of an interdisciplinary department to study the brain and behavior.

It would be “the very first one in the world. And I was 32 years old,” says McGaugh, who followed the advice and was offered the position. “For a 32-year-old kid to get the opportunity to create a department of this kind – and to have full responsibility for that – I mean, that’s just mind-boggling. And I took it.”

He never left. As UCI nears its 50th birthday, McGaugh is one of only a few of those founding faculty and administrators who are still productive members of the campus community. His role has ranged from teaching to research to administration – he was executive vice chancellor for a while and is a co-founder of UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory (cnlm.uci.edu). But at heart, McGaugh has been a researcher, doing groundbreaking work on how the brain creates memories, which earned him election to the National Academy of Sciences.

It was work, he says, that he couldn’t have done anywhere else. Had he stayed in Oregon, McGaugh “probably would have been isolated and, over the long haul, … gravitated into teaching” and left research. “This was really, really good for me. Just amazing. Hell of a ride,” he says of his career at UCI. “I couldn’t have achieved, I don’t think, what I’ve achieved at any other place. I mean, it’s just incredible.”

At the age of 82, McGaugh remains active in his field, making regular trips to conferences and working within the CNLM. His continued involvement with UCI gives him a rare vantage point from which to view the university’s evolution from open ranchland to top education and research institution with more than 29,000 students, 1,100 faculty members and 9,700 staff members.

Rounding up the team

McGaugh arrived at UC Irvine in June 1964, about 14 months before the campus would open for its first students. His job was to recruit teachers and researchers for the new brain and behavior department (later called the Department of Neurobiology & Behavior), develop the curriculum and begin managing what would become one of the premier programs in the nation.

It was a position that held bright promise but also carried significant risk for a young research scientist – a risk McGaugh says he didn’t fully appreciate at the time.

“I was not sophisticated enough to know that it could have been the end of my scientific career, because that’s a heavy administrative load,” he says, sitting in his sun-drenched corner office in the CNLM’s Qureshey Research Laboratory. “But it was not the end of my scientific career, so I had a good time afterward. Those were wonderful days – terrific days.”

McGaugh recalls a relatively small cadre of administrators and faculty working to launch the university for the 1965-66 academic year and to foster its growth in the ensuing years. UC regents intended UCI to reach parity with UCLA, UC Berkeley and the other existing campuses, so recruiters for the Irvine campus targeted top talent.

“All of the deans who were eligible for the National Academy of Sciences when this place was founded were elected to the National Academy of Sciences after they got here,” McGaugh says.

Three of the early wave of faculty – Leland H. Hartwell, Frederick Reines and F. Sherwood Rowland – went on to win Nobel Prizes, though Reines’ was for work on neutrinos that he did before arriving at UCI and Hartwell’s was for work on cell growth after he left. Rowland’s Nobel recognized his discovery – at UCI – that man-made chemicals were eroding the Earth’s atmospheric ozone layer.

Blazing the trail

“We were just loaded with outstanding leadership, very high-achieving people who had positive outlooks on what [UC Irvine] was going to be,” McGaugh says. “The optimism was just around. It was fun.”

He credits some of those visionaries with laying solid groundwork and making pivotal hiring decisions.

Founding biological sciences dean Edward Steinhaus, he says, was instrumental in developing the biological programs and changing how universities structure the study of sciences, opting for an interdisciplinary approach over the traditional and more isolated “silo” approach.

“He originated the organization of biological sciences as it is today, divided in terms of levels of analysis rather than the kind of animals or plants that people work on,” McGaugh says, adding that UCLA and UC Berkeley eventually adopted a similar model. “He was really an intellectual pioneer.”

Surprisingly, McGaugh says, he and the other administrators had little trouble attracting new hires to a campus that at the time barely existed. That newness, he believes, was part of UCI’s appeal.

“Nobody turned me down,” he says. “There was an infectious excitement about what we were doing here. It was almost like summer camp.”

Riding high

Tight friendships grew, a function of relative geographic remoteness and a shared sense of mission.

“We knew each other, and we felt we were building something,” McGaugh says. “And now it’s much more isolated than that. I don’t have a sense of building or the campus. I only have a sense of what my department is doing and what the center is doing.

“I don’t know what’s happening in sociology. I don’t know what’s happening in English or history or engineering. I used to know all of that, but I don’t anymore because the campus is too big. I mean, there’s nothing bad about that; it’s just a natural consequence.”

The modern UCI is mostly what the young McGaugh had hoped it would be – the differences due to the campus’s evolving mission, the decreases in state funding for higher education and radical changes in Orange County itself. UCI is ranked first among U.S. universities under 50 years old – and seventh worldwide – by the London-based Times Higher Education, and it often places 12th or above in national evaluations of public universities. Still, McGaugh sees room for improvement.

“If you look at where we’re ranked and what we’ve achieved across campus as a now well-established university, it’s damn good,” he says. “We have really built a great university. Is it as great as I would like it to be? The answer is no. And I think there’s no reason we couldn’t rank No. 2 or No. 3.”

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Statins reverse learning disabilities caused by Noonan syndrome


UCLA mouse study shows drugs overcome mutation, even in adult brain.

Alcino Silva, UCLA

UCLA scientists have discovered that statins, a popular class of cholesterol drugs, reverse the learning disabilities caused by a genetic disorder called Noonan syndrome.

Their findings were published online Nov. 10 by the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The disorder, which is caused by a genetic mutation, can disrupt a child’s development in many ways. It often causes unusual facial features, short stature, heart defects and developmental delays, including learning disabilities. No treatment is currently available.

“Noonan syndrome affects 1 in 2,000 people, and up to half of these patients struggle with learning disabilities,” said Alcino Silva, the study’s principal investigator and a professor of neurobiology, psychiatry and psychology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Our approach identified the mechanism causing the disease, as well as a treatment that reversed its effects in adult mice. We are excited about these findings because they suggest that the treatment we developed may help the millions of Noonan patients with intellectual disabilities.”

While many genes contribute to Noonan syndrome, there is one gene that causes about half of all cases. This gene encodes for a protein that regulates another protein called Ras, which controls how brain cells talk to each other, enabling learning to take place.

Working with first author Young-Seok Lee, Silva studied mice that were genetically engineered to develop Noonan syndrome. They discovered that the predominant mutation that leads to Noonan creates hyperactive Ras, which disrupts cellular conversations and undermines the learning process.

“The act of learning creates physical changes in the brain, much like grooves on a record,” said Silva, who also is a member of the UCLA Brain Research Institute and UCLA Integrative Center for Learning and Memory. “Surplus Ras tips the balance between switching signals on and off in the brain. This interrupts the delicate cell communication needed by the brain to record learned information.”

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