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NIH Record

Cognitive Science Advances Understanding of Brain, Experience

By Melissa Spearing

Designated the "Decade of the Brain" by Congress in 1990, the last 10 years have brought progress toward unlocking the mysteries of the brain, mind and behavior. Over this decade, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Library of Congress have collaborated in an educational initiative. On Oct. 6 they cosponsored a conference with support from the Charles A. Dana Foundation, "Understanding Our Selves: The Science of Cognition," which brought together 15 of America's top brain scientists to share evidence of this progress with members of Congress and the public. "This conference gives us the opportunity to communicate with the public and policymakers about the latest findings in cognitive neuroscience and their implications for understanding human experience," said NIMH director Dr. Steven E. Hyman, who moderated the conference at the Library of Congress.

Brain "plasticity," the concept that connections between nerve cells in the brain are constantly changing in structure and function in response to genetic and environmental influences, was a central theme. Plasticity is believed to be the basis for learning and memory in the brain. Scientists are thinking of ways to take advantage of this fundamental neural process in individuals with mental disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease to improve treatments and develop potential preventive interventions.

The conference also focused on advances in brain imaging techniques that have made it possible to identify specific areas of the brain and circuits of interconnected brain regions responsible for different cognitive functions such as working memory, attention and reading ability. Neuroimaging studies involving patients with mental disorders or brain injuries have helped reveal these functional relationships; in conjunction with recent findings from molecular genetics research, the studies are leading to new theories of the causes of mental disorders.

NIMH director Dr. Steven Hyman (l) meets with keynote speaker Dr. V.S. Ramachandran.

Keynote speaker Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, professor and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, described research involving patients with amputated limbs and patients with brain injuries to illustrate plasticity and the ability of the brain to reorganize itself. The brain is organized into different circuits responsible for specialized cognitive, emotional and motor functions. When there is damage to a particular part of the brain or body, the brain is forced to rearrange itself to compensate for the loss or impairment of normal function. Ramachandran and others are trying to develop rehabilitative therapies that harness the reorganization process — brain plasticity — to help injured patients.

Senators Pete Domenici and Paul Wellstone, authors of the 1996 Mental Illness Parity Act and strong supporters of neuroscience and mental health research, also spoke at the conference. Domenici emphasized the great strides research has made in helping us understanding the brain and mental disorders and stressed the importance of advances in neuroimaging technology for continued progress. He also underscored the need for improved mental health services in communities across the U.S. Wellstone highlighted the importance of linking good science to public policy and the need to challenge stereotypes and conquer the stigma of mental illness through research.

A video of the conference can be seen at

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