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May 2, 2000

New Research Center Will Investigate the Biology of the Mind

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Princeton has established an interdisciplinary research center to investigate the biology behind such elusive and quintessentially human aspects of our being as consciousness, moral behavior and logical thought.

The consortium, called the Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior, will use an array of emerging approaches, from brain imaging to genetic engineering, to reveal how the physical mechanisms of the brain give rise to the functions of the mind.

"The brain is the most complex device in the known universe; it has more synapses than stars," said the center's director, Jonathan Cohen. "But for centuries, we could offer only verbal ideas about how one part affects another. Through the contributions of many disciplines, we are now beginning to develop rigorous mathematical descriptions of how the brain works."

The new center is at the forefront of an emerging field called cognitive neuroscience, which pulls together two previously distinct areas of research: neuroscience, which examines the physical aspects of the brain, and cognitive psychology, which investigates mental and behavioral activity. In doing so, the center brings together scientists from psychology, molecular biology, applied mathematics, engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry, linguistics and philosophy. It also has affiliated researchers from Rutgers University, the University of Pennsylvania and Lucent Technologies.

The initiative builds on notable advances in brain research by Princeton scientists in recent years, including Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Gould's discoveries of nerve cell regeneration in the brain and Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology Joe Tsien's "smart mouse" experiments in learning and memory.

The single biggest technical advance driving the center's research comes from medical science. The center recently bought a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, a device that shows what sites in the brain are active during actions and thought processes. It is the psychologist's equivalent of a telescope turned inward, a tool that allows scientists to correlate physical processes with mental activities with unprecedented precision.

Such machines are used frequently in diagnosing and studying injuries and illnesses but are not widely available to scientists doing basic research. Princeton's center is the first to have planned a human brain-imaging facility outside of a medical setting, said Cohen.

The $2-million scanner is scheduled to begin operation this fall in Green Hall. It will be twice as powerful as standard medical fMRIs, making it among the most powerful in the country, said Cohen.

Using rented time on a scanner owned by Princeton Radiology Associates, a local clinical facility, the center's researchers already have embarked on a range of experiments. Philosophy graduate student Joshua Greene, for example, has begun a study to reveal biological underpinnings of certain types of moral behavior. He has proposed that the innate organization of the brain, and not just logical thought, shapes our moral decision-making in surprising ways. "Now we're getting to the nuts and bolts of the parts of the brain that make us who we are," said Greene.

Newly recruited faculty member Frank Tong plans to use fMRI to reveal what parts of the brain -- and what interactions between them -- give rise to consciousness. And Cohen is using the technology to understand how the brain keeps track of distractions.

Although the center's focus is basic research, its findings may illuminate neurological and psychological illnesses. Cohen, who holds a MD as well as a PhD, believes that his research could explain aspects of schizophrenia, which is characterized by a loss of an ability to consciously direct one's thoughts in the face of competing stimuli.

A long-term goal for the new center, said Cohen, will be to link its work with that of the University's newly established Institute for Integrative Genomics. "One of the remaining great frontiers in science is a better study of who we are, and what that really comes down to is our genetics and how our brain functions," said Cohen.

But building the connection between genes and the mind is a slow and difficult process, one Cohen likens to construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. "We've started to build out from both sides and are even building the two towers; there are boats going back and forth right now; but the bridge is not done."

For more information on the center and examples of fMRI images, please visit Pictures of Cohen and the scanner also are available.