A Q&A with Dr. Steve Maren, who is leading the brain science charge at Texas A&M.
In a nutshell, it’s a campus initiative built to explore the mysteries of the brain. We’re increasing research activities in neuroscience, both in animals and in humans. Modern neuroscience methods, including neuroimaging, allow us to peer into the brain and measure activity that is important for specific psychological functions, such as emotion or memory. The initiative has resulted in faculty hires in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences (formerly the psychology department). These new faculty members often work together in clusters around specific brain issues. For instance, those who study emotions might work collaboratively to research post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, compulsive behaviors, etc. The research taking place in our department then plugs into complementary efforts of the larger neuroscience community on campus.
The Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience is strongly collaborative among several of the major units on campus, including the veterinary school and the colleges of medicine, engineering, liberal arts and science. This means that we have very strong animal research and very strong human research sitting side-by-side, which makes us well-positioned to tackle issues of brain function across many levels of analysis.
My work is all in animals, looking at basic brain mechanisms for how we learn about emotional/traumatic events and how we can suppress those memories. I’m really interested in basic questions about the organization of the biology and the neurobiology of the brain circuits that perform functions related to emotions, memory, and so forth, and how these findings translate to the clinic.
Traumatic experiences cause a host of changes in the brain, some of which persist for hours, and others that persist for months or even years. Long-lasting changes include hyperactivity in the amygdala—an area of the brain involved in fear—and decreases in the activity of the prefrontal cortex—an area involved with emotional regulation.
Current therapies for anxiety disorders and PTSD focus on learning that cues associated with the trauma are no longer fear-provoking—they’re safe. My work is geared toward understanding how the brain remembers and learns about traumatic events, and then how we can target those brain areas and circuits to facilitate suppression of fear when it becomes pathological, as it is with PTSD.
The major questions my colleagues and I have been studying during the last 10 years concern the mechanisms in the brain that account for fear reduction. Our work has shown that the stress associated with a traumatic experience disrupts the prefrontal cortex. When the prefrontal cortex is stressed, procedures routinely used to suppress fear memories, such as exposure therapy, tend to be ineffective. We’re learning that the behavioral processes that dampen fear can be enhanced by juicing up certain pharmacological neurotransmitter systems in the brain circuits we’ve identified so that we can make it work better with drugs. This pharmacotherapeutic approach seems to have quite a bit of promise in terms of providing optimal therapies.
PTSD is a major debilitating disorder that affects an increasing number of people in the U.S. With depression, obsessive compulsive disorder or other mental illnesses, you don’t really know when the disorder begins. With PTSD, however, you have a moment in time where there’s a particularly traumatic event. Because we know when PTSD starts, we can model that traumatic experience very effectively in the lab using basic learning and memory procedures. This means you can go from laboratory work to the clinic and make substantial progress. The hope is that what we learn in basic animal work translates to humans and that we can develop better therapeutic interventions.
Maren is editor-in-chief of the international, interdisciplinary journal Behavioural Brain Research. He also was recently named to the Scientific Council of the nonprofit Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, which funds research leading to advances and breakthroughs in mental health disorders.
Because Texas A&M does not yet have a neuroscience undergraduate major, an important part of the Brain Science Initiative involves making this field more accessible to undergraduates. A major push to develop the major—which involves the Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience, the Texas A&M Health Science Center, and the colleges of liberal arts, science and veterinary medicine—is underway.
Housing memories of a traumatic experience involves multiple areas of the brain. While the hippocampus and cortex store information about the time and place of an event, the amygdala is critical for the memory’s emotional aspects. Fear memories can be suppressed when the prefrontal cortex inhibits the amygdala.
Although it might seem to take a lot of brains to be in Maren’s line of work, human brain size has little to do with actual intelligence. But brain size does matter when comparing species: among mammals, humans have the biggest brain by body weight.
The brain is composed of 100 billion neurons. Counting at a rate of one neuron per second, it would take you nearly 3,200 years to count them all!
“Whether it’s mental health, mental illness, or neurological disorders and neurodegeneration, brain disorders touch almost everyone: Even if you’re not personally afflicted, you likely have a family member or friend who is,” said Maren.
Texas A&M’s Brain Science Initiative brings together faculty and student researchers to see the brain in action, offering a more thorough understanding of how people think, feel and interact. Trained in cutting-edge techniques for neuroimaging and psychophysiological measurements, researchers from colleges across Texas A&M seek answers to everything from obsessive-compulsive disorder to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Gifts to the Brain Science Initiative can not only pay for expensive imaging equipment, but can also provide the personnel needed to lay the groundwork for federal funding of brain science research. Gifts likewise bolster the “discovery and innovation” pillar of Texas A&M University’s Lead by Example capital campaign. This impact area focuses on enhancing the ability of university researchers to answer some of the most pressing global issues facing 21st century society—including those related to mental health.
With a long tradition of research involving both humans and animals, Maren said Texas A&M is “uniquely positioned to seek answers to brain science questions.”
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