Georgetown doesn’t have the reputation for being a great science school, but some pretty mind-boggling research is being done in Reiss.
Maria Donoghue, an assistant professor of biology, has been conducting research on neuroscience for the past 15 months at her personal laboratory. In an interview with THE HOYA, she talks about her research, the future of the discipline and gives some helpful insights on the mind that may leave you scratching your head.
What research does the Donoghue laboratory focus on?
We study the development of the cerebral cortex, which is the biggest part of the brain, and is the part of the brain that has evolved the most in humans. It is where all the higher functions exist: cognition and thought. We care a lot about how it develops because we think that if we understand how it normally develops, then in cases of injury or disease we can recreate that development and improve the brain.
What are you currently working on?
I am working with some graduate students and post-docs to try and figure out how we know how many cells we should have in the cerebral cortex. What happens is all the cells generated in the brain are by in large generated during development. We are trying to figure out how cells communicate with one another to let them know if they are dividing or not and therefore regulating the total number of cells that are created during the developmental period.
As a relatively new discipline, how has the field of neuroscience evolved over the years?
One of the reasons I came here is that for a college environment Georgetown has a rich neuroscience community. There is a big community over at the medical school, there is a good community in biology, physics and also [psychology]. The history of neuroscience was just a lot of descriptions of cells shapes. Over the last 50 years we have moved from that descriptive science. Neuroscience has developed a lot in the generation of knockout mice, that is the ability to knock out a particular gene or add a particular gene in mice. The 1990s was the decade of the brain, and so neuroscience has become more sophisticated and developed over the last several decades.
It is said that whenever you have a thought there is a corresponding reaction in your brain. Can you actually track and observe thought and the process of thinking?
Anyone who got into neuroscience likely got into it because they wanted to understand consciousness and cognition. What we study is on a small molecular level. What is happening in your brain is all chemical responses. So can you boil down all thought into molecular reactions. . And at a place like Georgetown it allows you to bring up how do those chemical reactions turn into soul.
How do psychology and neuroscience interact?
Psych is telling you from a behavior point of view backwards – while we are looking up from the molecular level – how we carry out our behaviors. There is this great new area of neuroscience called “neuroeconomics” that is to understand the neuro basis of decision-making. If you can understand it, then you can market to it, so it is a little frightening.
Why is this new aspect frightening?
Frightening in the sense that if we understand the neurosystems that control behavior, then we can circumvent any conscious control.
What major breakthroughs do you foresee in the field of neuroscience?
A really big thing is this idea that you can do functional imaging. A person can sit in a machine and you can ask them to perform a task and you can look at their entire brain, non-invasively, and you can see what parts of that individual’s brain lights up when they are doing a particular task. What people are talking about is having a map of brain activation. How one individual is different from another is that they use those same pieces in a different way. I think that is something that everyone wants to understand.
Are there any aspects of the brain that you think will never be understood?
I think that very complex behaviors are going to take a very long time – cognition and morals and beliefs are going to be hard: What makes one person truly believe in God and another not? That is so individual that I think it will be hard to find out the neuro basis of that.
Name one thing that you think the public would be surprised to learn about the brain.
I think that today the general public thinks that stem cells are going to be a cure-all for a lot of brain disorders. I think that in the long run stem cells have the potential to cure some brain disorders, but I think that they are not as broadly prescribed as people think, so diseases like Alzheimer’s are going to be difficult to use stem cells to cure.
– Interview by Jimmy Wade