Brainstorming a neuroscience center

April 26, 2001

Heather Heilman

Last spring, Tulane offered a new undergraduate major in neuroscience. Students were signed up for it even before it was announced in print. A year later, there are more than 50 neuroscience majors, a number that represents an enormous success.

A new "four-plus-one" program has just been approved that will allow students to complete both a bachelor's and master's degree in neuroscience in five years. The undergraduate major was offered in response to student demand, said Jeff Tasker, associate professor of cell and molecular biology and the co-director of the undergraduate neuroscience program.

Neuroscience, or the study of the brain and nervous system, links biology to psychology and makes for a challenging, but a richly interesting, field of study.

"The brain is the most complicated organ of the body and the least understood," said Tasker. The study of the brain, he said, could yield new insight and better treatments for ailments such as Alzheimer's or depression, and even help us understand the mechanics of creative inspiration or the nature of consciousness.

"The beauty of neuroscience is that it touches on everything we do," said Richard Harlan, professor of structural and cellular biology. "Everything we perceive and everything we think is a product of our nervous system."

Harlan, who directs the graduate neuroscience program, also is involved in efforts to create the Tulane Neuroscience Center. He has received a planning grant from the Wall Fund to develop an advisory board and an administrative core for the center, which would consolidate neuroscience research, the 15-year-old graduate program in neuroscience, and the undergraduate major under one roof.

Whether that roof would be an actual, physical roof or just a figurative one is not certain yet, but the center certainly would include the addition of some new equipment.

"We want to develop some core facilities that could be used by neuroscientists all over the university," Harlan said. "There are things we don't have right now that are sorely needed."

Some of those things are a confocal microscope, a functional MRI dedicated to research, and a gene-array analyzer. Those tools would facilitate research, and so would the increased interaction among faculty from different departments and different campuses. There are faculty members from 14 different departments who are involved in neuroscience research.

"I'd like to branch out into areas you wouldn't think about in terms of neuroscience, like computer sciences," Harlan said. "When you look at DNA chips or the results of MRIs, the amount of information you get out of that is staggering. What you need are people who are good at looking at large data arrays and being able to extract information out of that."

Research at the neuroscience center would have two major focuses. Tulane already has a strong reputation in neuroendocrinology (the study of how hormones interact with the brain), largely thanks to the work of Andrew Schally, Tulane's Nobel Prize winner. The neuroscience center would build on that strength.

The other focus would be in cognitive and sensory neuroscience. Harlan believes Tulane could make its mark by bridging the gap between the two by looking at the effects of hormones on cognitive function. Work in this area is already going on. Gary Dohanich, professor of psychology and the other co-director of the undergraduate neuroscience major, is already looking at the effects of estrogen on learning and memory.

Harlan hopes to get the primate center involved in that type of research. In addition to creating a neuroscience center within Tulane, Harlan is working to establish a neuroscience consortium with several other area universities, including Xavier and the University of Mississippi. And while he's still actively looking for grants and other sources of funding for the Tulane Neuroscience Center, he's optimistic about the possibilities.

"I think we could have something that's really unique that would make Tulane nationally eminent in the field," he said. "Admittedly it would cost a fair investment, but the return could be enormous. I'm pretty excited."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000