By SHERRY LEVY-REINER
"There can be no more important research, from our point of view, than research on how human beings think and learn."
So said Dr. Billington as he opened the final program of the Decade of the Brain Project, a 10-year collaborative initiative cosponsored by the Library and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) of the National Institutes of Health.
With generous funding from the Charles A. Dana Foundation, the October 1999 meeting, "Understanding Our Selves: The Science of Cognition," complemented a similar 1998 program, "Discovering Our Selves: The Science of Emotion." More than 225 attendees-including congressional staff members, policymakers, scientists and physicians, mental health advocates and the general public-gathered in the Montpelier Room of the Madison Building to hear 14 experts explore the consequences of current research in cognitive neuroscience.
NIMH Director Steven E. Hyman, M.D., moderated the entire day' s program and introduced Sens. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who addressed the group in the morning and afternoon, respectively. Both senators paid tribute to the Library and NIMH for cosponsoring the Decade of the Brain Project and the conference on cognition as well as to the researchers and clinicians for their valuable work.
Sen. Domenici noted the rapid progress in medicine's ability to understand, treat and perhaps someday prevent mental illness. He urged researchers and clinicians to move forward with applying new knowledge to applications that will help the seriously mentally ill. Sen. Wellstone emphasized the need for legislation that will end discrimination against treatment for mental illness and the more general need for changes in attitudes toward such illness.
In addition to hearing formal presentations, conference attendees visited special exhibit areas during the lunch period. Speakers and other exhibitors demonstrated the potential uses of neuroimaging equipment and spoke about their findings individually to conference attendees. NIMH offered a tour of its laboratories on videotape.
Keynote speaker V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California-San Diego, spoke on "The Artful Brain: What Neurology Can Tell Us of Human Nature." Mr. Ramachandran noted the parallel agendas of research in cognitive neuroscience: trying to help patients who have neurological deficits that may be present from birth or the result of illness or accidents and trying to understand human nature in general.
In his summary, part of a panel titled "Neuroscience and Society: The Promise of Neuroscience," Mr. Ramachanchandran described his research into how the human brain responds to works of art. With New York Times science writer Sandra Blakeslee, who moderated the concluding session, Mr. Ramachandran is author of Phantoms in the Brain, which explores how brain activity relates to thought and consciousness.
Two panels of researchers in the morning looked first at "The Varieties of Cognition," including conscious and unconscious memory, attention and information-processing; and "Understanding Cognitive Disorders," particularly schizophrenia and dementia, emphasizing the significant role played by new technologies - especially functional imaging - in analyzing brain activity.
In the afternoon, a panel of researchers studying autism and developmental and learning disorders described how their findings are helping children and adults in practical ways in a session titled "Neuroscience and Society: Making a Difference."
In his closing remarks, Mr. Hyman noted, "The science of cognition and the science of emotion, which are inextricably linked, have enormous implications for our self-understanding and for the widest range of human experience from art to seriously disabling mental illnesses. We've moved, in this Decade of the Brain, from fairly simplistic models of how the brain works to a recognition of the extreme complexity of the brain and the complexity of our investigations. As we've illustrated today, the science is essential to self-understanding but it need not strip us of our humanity as we delve more deeply."
Following the all-day program, speakers and leaders of groups such as the American Psychological Association and Research!America attended a special celebration in the Capitol to celebrate the achievements of the Decade of the Brain. Among members of Congress who attended the reception were: Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Reps. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), John Porter (R-Ill.), Charles Taylor (R-N.C.), Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and former Rep. Paul Rogers.
Since 1990 the Library of Congress and the National Institute of Mental Health have collaborated on this unique interagency initiative to advance the goals set forth in a Presidential Proclamation designating the 1990s the Decade of the Brain. To enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research, the Library and NIMH have cosponsored numerous symposia, congressional informational breakfasts, publications, videotapes and a Web site. Administered by Prosser Gifford and this writer in the Library's Office of Scholarly Programs, the program has brought hundreds of people to programs at the Library and reached millions of others through various media, including the Internet.
For more information, visit the Library of Congress/NIMH Decade of the Brain Web site at www.loc.gov/loc/brain. Single copies of an executive summary will be available from NIMH early in 2000.
Speakers and Their Topics
- Jonathan D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Director, Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior, Princeton University; and Associate Professor of Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh; "Online Thinking in the Brain"
- Eric Courchesne, Ph.D., Professor of Neurosciences, School of Medicine, University of California-San Diego; "A Decade of Research on Autism: From Mystery to Insight and Hope"
- Martha Bridge Denckla, M.D., Director, Developmental Cognitive Neurology, the Kennedy Krieger Institute; and Professor of Neurology, Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; "Beneath the Surface: Imaging Reveals Subcortical Brain Factors Underlying Learning Disabilities"
- Robert Desimone, Ph.D., Scientific Director, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health; "How the Brain Pays Attention"
- Guinevere Eden, D. Phil., Assistant Professor, Georgetown University Medical Center; "Using Functional Brain Imaging to Study the Reading Brain"
- Bruce S. McEwen, Ph.D., Professor and Head, Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, Rockefeller University; "Stress, the Brain, and Our Mental and Physical Health"
- Denise Park, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist, the Center for Applied Cognitive Research on Aging, Institute for Social Research, the University of Michigan; "The Aging Mind"
- Steve Petersen, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Neurology and Neurological Surgery, Washington University School of Medicine; "Studies of Memory: Implications for Born to Learn"
- V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D., Professor and Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, the University of California-San Diego; "The Artful Brain: What Neurology Can Tell Us of Human Nature and the Meaning of Art"
- Bruce R. Rosen, M.D., Ph.D., Director, Massachusetts General Hospital NMR Center; Professor in Radiology, Harvard Medical School; "The Future of Functional Imaging"
- Larry Squire, Ph.D., Research Career Scientist, VA Medical Center, San Diego; Professor of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine; "Conscious and Unconscious Memory Systems of the Brain"
- Daniel R. Weinberger, M.D., Chief, Clinical Brain Disorders Branch, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health; "Cognitive Circuitry and the Cell Biology of Schizophrenia"
- Edgar DeYoe, Ph.D., Department of Cellular Biology, Neurobiology and Anatomy, Medical College of Wisconsin
- Edward Flynn, Ph.D., Director, National Foundation for Functional Brain Imaging, Albuquerque, N.M.
Mr. Cole is cochair of the Library's Bicentennial Steering Committee and director of the Center for the Book.