Take it from several Nobel laureates: Brain researchers at the University of Arizona are poised to make important contributions to finding better diagnoses and possibly treatments for brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.
To help commemorate three milestones in brain science research at the UA, four internationally renowned brain scholars — including three who shared the latest Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine — visited the UA campus this week to speak about their scientific careers and reflect on the tight connections they have shared with UA colleagues over many years.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the UA Arizona Research Laboratories Division of Neural Systems, Memory and Aging, or NSMA; the 10th anniversary of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the UA; and the fifth anniversary of the UA School of Mind, Brain and Behavior.
UA President Ann Weaver Hart has named neuroscience as a research priority under the UA's strategic Never Settle plan. The BIO5 Institute and the UA Health Sciences Center have goals of supporting transdisciplinary neuroscience research in partnership with institutions across the state — from the molecular underpinnings of brain-cell health to the translation of this biological knowledge into treatments for neurological disease. The College of Science and the Office for Research and Discovery also are involved in supporting these efforts through the School of Mind, Brain and Behavior; NSMA; and the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute.
During a public forum on Thursday, the UA welcomed the four guests to share their stories of discoveries in neuroscience with UA students, members of the public and the media. The visitors were John O'Keefe and Edvard and May-Britt Moser, who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and Eleanor Maguire, who received the Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2003.
O'Keefe and the Mosers received the prize for their discoveries of specialized cells in the brain that together act like a navigation system.
"All memories are attached in some way to where you are, and in that way, the hippocampus acts as an anchor for remembering yourself within your experience," said Carol Barnes, who organized the visit along with two other UA brain researchers: Lynn Nadel, a Regents' Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science and chair of the UA faculty; and Mary Peterson, professor of psychology and chair of the School of Mind, Brain and Behavior executive committee; director of the Cognitive Science Program; and chair of the Cognitive Science Graduate Interdisciplinary Program.
Edvard Moser said that some important work leading up to the Nobel Prize was done at the UA — for example, developing the technology for recording the activity of many brain cells at the same time, and developing ideas of how memory is generated in the hippocampus.
"The UA is one of the centers of neuroscience," O'Keefe said. "As one of the world's experts on the aging brain, Carol has told us as much about how the brain ages by looking at the hippocampus as anyone else.
"Research that initially was driven by mere curiosity can lead to translational research," he added. "Everything that we have learned about the hippocampus can now be used to begin to look for cures for Alzheimer's."
Barnes worked in O'Keefe's lab for a year at University College London during a postdoctoral fellowship, in a collaboration that yielded three landmark publications.
O'Keefe first visited the UA at the inauguration of the ARL Division of Neural Systems, Memory and Aging in 1990, where he gave the keynote address.
"He was cheering us on from the beginning," said Barnes, a Regents' Professor with appointments in the departments of psychology, neurology and neuroscience. She is director of NSMA and the Evelyn F. McKnight Endowed Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging, and associate director of the UA's BIO5 Institute. "They built us the best systems neuroscience lab (studying neuron activity across the brain) in the world. This allowed us to be on the cutting edge of neuroscience research."
When the Mosers founded the Kavli Institute and the Centre for the Biology of Memory at the University of Trondheim, Norway, Barnes was selected to serve on the center's scientific advisory board. Her collaborations with O'Keefe and the Mosers have resulted in many co-authored scientific papers.
"Edvard and I were still students when we read about Lynn's and Carol's work," May-Britt Moser said. "I remember reading beautiful papers about aging in the rat brain by an author named C. A. Barnes."
Moser emphasized the importance of basic academic research for the public well-being: "To understand what goes wrong in the brain in disease, you have to understand how it works in the normal brain."
Recently, the UA announced the launch of the Center for Innovation in Brain Science, which will unite campuswide neuroscience efforts, serve as a hub for linking fundamental discoveries to solutions for important clinical problems and provide training for the next generation of biomedical investigators. The center is seen as an important introduction in a continuum of UA-affiliated research shaping global scholarship about the brain.
Focused on neuroscience at the UA's Arizona Health Sciences Center, the new center will foster connections between basic science and clinical appliactions, Barnes said.
"We are looking to attract world-class scientists and students to work on both basic and translational aspects," she said. "The type of neuroscience that these Nobel laureates represent will hopefully soon be expanded here at the UA."
Nadel and O'Keefe met when they were graduate students at McGill University in Montreal in the late 1960s. Nadel later joined O'Keefe at University College London for six years, and the two co-authored a seminal book, "The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map." Published in 1978, the book set forth a theory about how the hippocampus works that "is still relevant, inspirational and a guiding force in the field today," according to Barnes.
Maguire attained international fame for her studies revealing changes in the brains of London taxi drivers before and after going through two to three years of training required to learn and memorize 25,000 streets.
"It turns out the hippocampus is important for imagining and planning your future, and it has important roles at the heart of cognition, and that is why it is so devastating when dementias such as Alzheimer's strike," Maguire said. "It is in all our interest to study (the brain) so we can help people prevent losing their past and their future."