Exploring the Latest Trends in Neuroscience
Sam Wang is an associate professor, Department of Molecular Biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
Wang grew up in California and studied physics at the California Institute of Technology. Seeking his Ph.D. at Stanford University, he switched to neuroscience. He has worked at Duke University as a postdoctoral fellow and aided political leaders as a Congressional Science Fellow. After completing his postdoctoral studies, he spent two years at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., where he learned to use pulsed lasers to study brain signaling before coming to Princeton.
Wang, who has published more than 40 articles on the brain in leading scientific journals. His educational reach extends past the laboratory and classroom in his books, popular articles and efforts to convey neuroscience to interested nonscientists.
Sam Wang: So there are two kinds of ways that neuroscience may be transforming. One that’s internal to the field, another that perhaps links to the rest of society.
So let’s start with neuroscientists. One thing that neuroscientists are very interested in right now is understanding how genetics and development can lead to the wiring of a brain. And one thing that’s become very big in the last few years is the idea that we may start having enough technology to be able to completely map out a fairly advance piece of tissue, like part of our brains, or part of the brain of a mouse. And technologies are being developed to basically give us the circuit diagram.
So everyone’s heard of a human genome project in which you sequence the entire genome of, say, a human being. There’s something that is jokingly called the human brainome project, which is to come up with something analogous in terms of mapping a human brain both for long distances and also in detail. And I think that technology has a potential to be transformative to how neuroscientists think about the problems that they’re working on.
Now, there’s another aspect to that question, which is how neuroscience is going to transform or interact with the rest of society. And there’s two ways that that can happen.
One way is, I think, the medical way, which we all are thinking about. You ask me before about Alzheimer’s disease. As we start beginning to understand the brain as a biological organ, we can start addressing neurological diseases like autism, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s. And I think that’s something where there’s going to be huge advances.
And then, there’s this other kind of thing that’s not medical. Let’s call it philosophical. The idea that our brains underlie a wide variety of human experiences. So, for instance, criminality. What does it mean to be criminally capable? Economic behavior, what is it that causes an economic bubble? Why do bubbles form and why do they burst? What is it that makes us fall in love? What is it that makes us form friendships? Why do we declare war on people we’ve never met?
And all of these things are aspects of human experience. And, I guess, what I’m claiming here is that as neuroscience advances, we’re going to start understanding all of these things in terms of brain mechanisms. And I think that all these things are old things that have been with us for… from time immemorial. But, I think, that as neuroscience advances, they’re all going to look a little bit different.
If people are interested in the brain, I mean, at a very basic level, I think our book, “Welcome to Your Brain”, is something that’s fairly introductory for people who have knowledge at all.
I think that one thing that people read if they want to keep up with current discoveries that’s always fun to read is the magazine “Scientific American Mind.” I know that I’m always learning new things from that. It ranges from discoveries that my colleagues are making about, say, how wheels work or how neuroplasticity may work to things that are very much concerns in everyday life like why is it that we are unable to imagine death or why do we procrastinate.
I find that that magazine is a great resource for people at all levels, both introductory and also very expert.
Recorded on: April 24, 2009.
Neuroscientist Sam Wang on the nexus between genetics and development.
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