Mason Prepares for Involvement in ‘Decade of the Mind’

Posted: May 7, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Jim Olds
Jim Olds, director of Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, says the “decade of the mind” will aim to significantly improve Americans’ health, particularly in diseases that affect the mind, and strengthen the U.S. economy by translating our knowledge of the human mind to building more intelligent machines and computer applications.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

By Jim Greif

Leading researchers on many varied disciplines of brain study – including neuroscience, neurobiology, computer science, psychology, robotics and economics – will converge at Mason to discuss the urgent need for a decade-long research initiative into brain research. This two-day “Decade of the Mind” symposium will be hosted by Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study.

The Mason Gazette recently sat down with Jim Olds, Krasnow director, to discuss the reasons for holding such a symposium.

Why is it important to study brain function?

The brain is the seat of who we are as individuals. It is also the key part of the human body for defining whether we are alive. If we want to understand how humans can create music, write plays, invent machines and suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s, then we must study brain function.

Why is Mason hosting this event?

Mason has tremendous depth in the field of integrative or systems neuroscience, as recognized recently by a former president of the Society for Neuroscience. Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study was founded by some of the world’s leading scientists to focus on studying brain function within the context of human cognition. Federal agencies have recognized Mason’s leadership in this area and have asked the university to host this kick-off event for the decade of the mind.

Why should the next 10 years be named the decade of the mind? Why now?

Neuroscience made tremendous progress during the recent “decade of the brain.” New technologies were developed which allow us to peer noninvasively into the living, conscious human brain. In parallel, the human genome was sequenced, giving us the master informational blueprint for how the brain is structured. We are now ready to take advantage of this scientific progress to understand that which the brain does.

abstract brain image
Neuroscience made tremendous progress during the recent “decade of the brain,” Olds says. Now it’s time to take advantage of this progress.

How is Mason positioning itself for decade of the mind, i.e., what areas of brain research will be on the top of our agenda?

Mason is positioning itself to play a key role in the decade of the mind. Its neuroscience facilities located primarily at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study are state-of-the-art, and there is a critical mass of highly successful faculty members from across the university working on the question of how cognition and consciousness fit into the mind. At the top of our decade of the mind agenda are curing brain diseases which affect the mind (like Alzheimer’s disease) and reverse engineering the principles of brain architecture to create artifacts (robots and software) which show some of the characteristics and cleverness of the human mind.

Who are Mason’s key players currently and what are they working on?

Giorgio Ascoli is one of Mason’s key players. He leads Krasnow’s Center for Neuroanatomy, Neuroinformatics and Neuroplasticity and an NIH-funded team of top faculty. They are working to understand a brain structure called the hippocampus, which plays a central role in the storage of human memory.

What specific types of research would be done during the decade?

Research during the decade would cover a broad range of integrative or systems neuroscience. Scientists would study the mind from the level of molecules all the way up to brain-immune system interactions. In addition, scientists will study principles of “mind” design in order to explain the hidden rules for the mind.

What would be the top goals of the decade and what could some major outcomes be?

There are two top goals. First to significantly improve the public health of Americans, particularly in diseases that affect the mind (like Parkinson’s, autism and schizophrenia). The second is to strengthen the U.S. economy by translating our knowledge of the human mind to building more intelligent machines and computer applications.

Research as the result of a well-funded decade of the mind would:

  • Manage Alzheimer’s disease with targeted treatments in a similar manner to how HIV is treated
  • Develop new therapies for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder
  • Achieve the goal of 75 percent of all military vehicles operating unmanned and autonomously
  • Help us understand our own consciousness and determine if animals possess a similar consciousness

How would a decade of the mind help the average American? What changes would he or she see during and after the decade?

The average American will lead a more healthful and happy life as a result of the decade of the mind. He or she would see a tremendous and coordinated effort among American scientists working in many areas of science during the decade. After the decade, the average American will begin to see concrete improvements to mind health. There will be an additional positive effect on the American economy as the technological innovations made possible by the decade begin to be transferred to the private sector.

How much money would it take to properly fund a decade of the mind?

It would take perhaps $4 billion to properly fund a decade of the mind. To put this number in context: Each year, the NIH spends approximately $30 billion on biomedical research.

What person or organization would coordinate the funding and research during the decade?

The U.S. federal government and leading scientists would collaborate to coordinate the funding of research during the decade.

What is the most important discovery involving the human mind thus far?

There is a general scientific consensus, based on all the data collected so far, that mind is a product of the human brain.

More information about the decade of the mind event is available online.

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