Pitt Establishes Brain Institute to Unlock Mysteries Of the Human Brain, Discover Novel Therapies

Issue Date: 
January 13, 2014

The University of Pittsburgh is creating a new institute that aims to unlock the mysteries of normal and abnormal brain function, and then use this new information to develop novel treatments and cures for brain disorders. The new institute will function like a Bell Labs for brain research and provide a special environment to promote innovation and discovery. The goal is to enable investigators to perform high-risk, high-impact neuroscience that will transform lives.

“Pittsburgh has earned well-deserved respect as one of the world’s leading centers for groundbreaking research in neuroscience,” said University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “We have the intellectual firepower to take a lead role in the nationwide effort to revolutionize the understanding of the brain. The creation of our Brain Institute reflects the high priority that we have assigned to this important work and will position Pitt for even higher levels of impact and achievement in the years ahead. It also will strengthen our ongoing local, national, and international research efforts, such as the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, which is a joint program with Carnegie Mellon University.”

According to Arthur S. Levine, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of Medicine, the Brain Institute will initiate five centers that focus on neurotechnology, neurogenetics, brain mapping, learning, and discovery in neuroscience. The Brain Institute’s mission also includes coordinating strategic planning for further research initiatives and developing and overseeing essential research resources. “The Brain Institute will bring to bear the substantial resources across the University to take on some of the major health and scientific concerns of our time,” Levine said. “We have the will and the skills to unravel how the brain works, making this a very exciting time to conduct research in neuroscience.”

Pitt has long been at the forefront of neuro-related research. The University is where: Salk developed a vaccine against polio, which prevents the virus from damaging the nervous system and causing paralysis; Pittsburgh Compound B was developed for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease; a brain-computer interface first made it possible for a woman with quadriplegia to feed herself by moving a robotic arm with just her thoughts; and new diagnostic tools and imaging methods are being developed to detect concussions and traumatic brain injuries. “The Brain Institute will add to this already remarkable list of achievements,” said Levine.

Last April, President Barack Obama announced the inception of the BRAIN Initiative, describing it as a bold new research effort to revolutionize our understanding of the human mind and address brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. Pitt’s renowned researchers can rise to the challenge, noted Patricia E. Beeson, Pitt provost and senior vice chancellor.

“Our extensive and accomplished community of neuroscientists and physicians is part of a Pitt culture that encourages cooperation and collaboration with colleagues from a variety of disciplines, including bioengineering, communication disorders, computer science, mathematics, neurology, neuroscience, neurosurgery, ophthalmology, otolaryngology, psychiatry, psychology, and rehabilitation,” she said. “This breadth of talent and experience makes us ideally suited to take our understanding of brain function to the next level.”

The Brain Institute’s founding scientific director is Peter L. Strick, Distinguished Professor and chair, Department of Neurobiology. He is a leading expert on the neural basis of movement and cognition and was recently elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He holds the Endowed Chair in Systems Neuroscience, is codirector of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition and the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, and is a Senior Research Career Scientist at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

“The critical task of discovering how the brain develops, how it functions normally, and how to alleviate and cure abnormal function requires a broad, multi-level, and multi-disciplinary approach,” Strick said. “In other words, it ‘takes a University.’ I am enormously proud that the University of Pittsburgh has taken on this challenge.”

Initially, five centers will be established at the Brain Institute. They are:

  • A NeuroTech Center to restore movement to the paralyzed and vision to the blind, and to develop new technology-based treatment approaches for motor and cognitive disorders. To do so, the center will create new tools for long-term recording from and stimulation of populations of neurons in the human brain.
  • A NeuroGenetics Center to develop non-human primate models of neurodevelopmental, neuropsychiatric, and neurodegenerative disorders to accelerate the development of new cures and treatments for neural disorders.
  • A NeuroMapping Center to unravel the complex circuitry and patterns of activity that are the neural basis of movement, cognition, emotion, learning, language, and creativity—in other words, all that makes us human. This center will be deeply involved in exploring the mind-body connection that is the basis of the emerging field of health neuroscience.
  • A NeuroLearning Center to study the biological bases of learning and memory, including the brain changes that accompany learning in educational domains, in human development, and in overcoming cognitive impairment.
  • A NeuroDiscovery Center, the equivalent of a Bell Labs for neuroscience, to support particularly innovative, multidisciplinary, and high-risk/high-reward neuroscience research.

Currently, there are few effective treatments for most brain disorders, and cures are far from imminent for many chronic and debilitating neurodegenerative and psychiatric diseases. “As the Baby Boomer population ages, we are facing a health crisis caused by the growing burden of neurologic and neuropsychiatric disease,” Strick said. “The basic science and the translational research fostered by the Brain Institute are the critical first steps that must be taken to meet this challenge.”