MIT Sloan Speaker Series: Dr Wolfgang Knecht

30 Oct. 2013

The Sloan Speaker Series of 2013 concluded on October 30th with a distinguished presentation by Dr. Wolfgang Knecht, Managing Director of the ZNZ / Neuroscience Center Zurich. For the coordinator of a network of 1000 neuroscientists at one of the first joint competence centers of the University of Zurich and the ETH, it was fitting that the audience of ETH, MIT and Cornell alumni met on-campus at the ETH. Dr. Knecht began working on Neuroscience 20 years ago by modeling neuronal networks, but soon moved onto the behavioral consequences of its structures, noting that in Switzerland alone over a million people suffer from anxiety disorders, 66,000 of which are personality disorders and over 70,000 psychotic in nature. Starting with an overview of research at the ZNZ, he discussed both what we know about the brain (for example, how it reacts to sound), as well as what we don’t know, like why the cells in the Central Nervous System do not regenerate like all other tissue. In particular, since there is no unifying brain theory, a mathematical language or logic of how the brain actually works, he admitted that “there are a lot of question marks.” On the one hand, while we seem to be “hard-wired”, this configuration is subject to “a powerful plasticity”, with which the brain can adapt to compensate for functional loss.

Dr. Knecht’s accounts of the ZNZ research projects were equally inspiring: preliminary tests to treat chronic pain with non-invasive surgery, using MRI technology and focused ultrasound to penetrate the blood-brain barrier with drug molecules have been promising. We also heard of windows being installed into the brains of mice, in vivo, enabling special microscopes to follow the activities of single cells. There is, apparently example, an electric circuit in the brain which is only activated by learning.

All in all, the evening afforded us a glimpse into the research agenda of today’s most high-profile field, including its assumptions, history, and limitations. Although the tools at their disposal have developed dramatically in recent years, brain scientists admit that it will take many more decades of study to truly understand the processes at work. Waxing philosophical, Dr. Knecht reminded us that, in Science, it is often the projects which seem to “fail” which trigger the most promising new avenues of research.

Reminder: visit the Brain Fair, which will take place from March 10-15, 2014 in Zurich, see http://www.neuroscience.ethz.ch/BrainFair

Bublu Thakur-Weigold

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