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Cornell Neurotech Symposium explores brain research

Three neuroscientists discussed how birds learn to sing, an RNA editing approach to potentially cure the autism spectrum disorder Rett Syndrome, and the latest progress in functional imaging of human brains at the third annual Cornell Neurotech Mong Family Foundation Symposium, Sept. 27 in the Biotechnology Building.

In his talk, “Music in the Brain: How Neural Circuits in the Songbird Learn to Sing,” Michale Fee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said his lab works to understand how the brain generates complex sequential behaviors. “Many of the behaviors that we humans think of as uniquely human are examples of complex learned behaviors, like speech and language, musical performance and athletic performance,” he said. “These are all behaviors in which the brain has to generate a precise sequence of motor gestures.”

Gail Mandel of Oregon Health and Science University focused on Rett Syndrome, a devastating neurological disease with a known cause but mysterious underpinnings. Her research seeks to repair mutations in the affected genewithout worrying about the fundamental nature of what it does. “Unlike some other neurological diseases, it's not neurodegenerative ... the neurons don’t die,” she said.

In the final talk, “Imaging Function and Connectivity in the Human Brain with High Magnetic Fields: Spanning Scales from Cortical Columns to the Whole Brain,” Kamil Ugurbil, University of Minnesota, reviewed the history of magnetic resonance imaging of the human brain and addressed what is needed to study the brain and asked “Do we have to record the activity of all neurons to understand how the brain works?”

Each of the speakers has “made seminal contributions to neuroscience by developing or leveraging a diverse range of technologies, such as molecular genetic tools, optical and electrical recording, magnetic resonance imaging, and big-data analysis,” said Chris Xu, professor of applied and engineering physics and co-director of Cornell Neurotech. “The symposium exemplifies the crucial role of neurotechnology in the advancement of brain research.”

“The speakers were terrific, with an amazing breadth of topics in brain science and the latest progress in functional imaging of human brains,” said Joseph Fetcho, co-director of Cornell Neurotech and professor of neurobiology and behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Cornell Neurotech launched in 2015 as a joint initiative between the College of Arts and Sciences and Cornell Engineering, funded by a grant from the Mong family foundation through Cornell alum Stephen Mong ’92, M.Eng. ’93, MBA ’02.

“Cornell Neurotech is front and center in the effort of developing new technologies and tools needed to reveal the inner workings of the brain with a particular focus on how individual brain cells and complex neural networks interact at the speed of thought,” said Andrew Bass, professor of neurobiology and behavior and senior associate dean of CAS. “[It] started and remains very much a grassroots faculty effort lead by a group from the life sciences community, physical sciences and engineering.”

Jenna Powers is research support coordinator for the Cornell NeuroNex Technology Hub.

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Gillian Smith