The Promise of Neuroscience

A conversation with Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, founding director of GW’s new Institute for Neuroscience.

July 21, 2010

Understanding how the brain works and why it works the way it does is the aim of GW’s new Institute for Neuroscience, which brings together 24 researchers from across campus and Children’s National Medical Center.

Founding director Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, an internationally renowned neuroscientist, talks to GW Today about the institute, the field of neuroscience, and its potential for better understanding diseases and disorders, from autism to Alzheimer’s.

Q: For non-experts, what is neuroscience, and what are some the major issues in the field?
Neuroscience is the multidisciplinary study of how brains are organized and how they work. Thus, neuroscientists are a truly diverse group of investigators and scholars. Neuroscience includes efforts to understand how genes influence the development, organization and function of the brain—how a brain is put together, how nerve cells are arranged in circuits to process information, and how those circuits control behavior.

Neuroscience also includes efforts to understand brain diseases—what happens when the brain is not optimally assembled, or when the brain begins to change in ways that compromise behavior. The questions that neuroscientists ask in their laboratories include how specific molecules cause a nerve cell to change its electrical activity, how social interactions in humans change perception or patterns of brain activity, or nearly philosophical questions of how the human brain establishes essential states like consciousness.

While the breadth of neuroscience seems daunting, it reflects the fundamental complexity of the focus of the discipline—the truly remarkable things our brains are capable of.

Q: Can you talk a little about your background and areas of expertise?
A: I was trained as a neuroscientist. In fact, I was the first student in what eventually became the Ph.D. program in neuroscience at Yale. My primary interest has always been in the development of the mammalian brain, and how what we learn in the laboratory can be applied to understanding our own brains.

My work in my own laboratory focuses on the early steps of brain development—how you turn on and off the genes that put the right pieces of the brain in the right places, and how that process establishes the identity of what we now call neural stem cells. It turns out that the process involves genes that are also associated with risk for disorders like autism, ADHD and schizophrenia in humans, so part of my work now focuses on understanding how such “risk” genes, if mutated, might contribute to the pathogenesis, or development, of these diseases.

Q: What are GW's current strengths in neuroscience?
A: I think GW’s strength is the breadth of neuroscience currently being done on campus. There is terrific expertise in areas of neuroscience that I believe are fundamental, including how primate brains—from monkeys and chimps to our own—are organized at the cellular level, how they evolve and how primate social behavior occurs. There is also exciting work done in basic mechanisms of sensory and motor system function, again from human behavior to cellular physiology.

With our colleagues at the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Medical Center, there is a group of outstanding developmental neuroscientists. My hope is to augment those strengths by adding new faculty who are interested in how neural circuits develop, and how key genes for brain development and disease influence making the circuits that ultimately process information that makes our brains work.

Q: How has neuroscience changed our understanding of diseases that affect the brain?
A: One of the crucial insights over the past decade is that many of the most intractable brain disorders that were once thought to be distinct diseases—particularly developmental disorders like intellectual disabilities, language disorders, ADHD and autism, and even psychiatric disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—are all on a continuum of diseases that compromise neural circuits, interconnected groups of nerve cells that process specific information, in the cerebral cortex.

I think that an important next phase of neuroscience research—especially that aimed at understanding and developing new treatments for these very difficult disorders—will be to understand the genetic, molecular and cellular mechanisms of cortical circuit development and function, and the behavioral consequences of changes in cortical circuitry. It is my hope that we can continue to build the community of GW neuroscientists to make sure that important discoveries of how cortical circuits develop and work, and how those events are compromised by developmental disorders, happen at GW and Children's National Medical Center.

Q: How might the institute’s research translate into discoveries that further our understanding of the human brain or of disease?
A: Our new capacity to identify and manipulate genes in a whole range of species and associate those genes with specific aspects of brain function gives us new insight into where brain development and function is vulnerable for disease. We are at the same point in neuroscience as cancer biology was in the late 1970s when the first oncogenes were identified, and essential cell biological targets for cancer pathogenesis began to emerge.

I would like to see GW neuroscientists continue to put together how the genome normally ensures that the brain gets built and operates optimally, and what are the key points where this process can go wrong. I think this effort will yield insight into the pathology of a whole range of now intractable diseases from autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders—my own interests—through neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Q: What will your day-to-day job entail leading the institute?
A: My essential responsibility will be to listen to institute members and facilitate their research efforts. To do that, I am working with institute members on the Foggy Bottom Campus and our colleagues at the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s Hospital to develop and expand core research services that are most efficiently delivered in shared facilities operated by an expert technical staff.

I’m also responsible for the smooth operation of essential programs that build a community of investigators, including the planning of a seminar series that will bring well-known neuroscientists from throughout the nation to speak at GW and interact with GW faculty, students and research fellows. I also will constantly be looking for opportunities to enhance research productivity and funding for institute members by encouraging collaboration and supporting the development of new approaches and technologies to make neuroscience at GW as competitive as possible.

Q: What drew you to GW?
A: I think it is really remarkable that GW, in a time when many academic institutions are retrenching, is committing to developing new research enterprises. I really appreciate the combined efforts of Leo Chalupa, GW vice president for research; Jim Scott and Skip Williams, the leadership of the medical center; Peg Barratt, dean of Columbian College; and Vince Chiappinelli, the chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology, who have made this new initiative possible.

Also, I think that to do this work in our nation’s capital—where the impact of scientific discoveries for making decisions that impact on everyone’s lives—is especially exciting. I hope that we can build the sort of community of neuroscientists that stimulates important new research in what I believe to be one of the most exciting and essential biomedical research issues—how our brains work and how things can go wrong.

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