Columbia University Medical Center

Columbia Establishes Two New Programs In Cognitive Neuroscience

Combining its excellence in neuroscience with the generosity of two prominent philanthropies, Columbia University will now be in a position to extend into new directions its pioneering contribution in molecular cognition. The Charles A. Dana Foundation and the W.M. Keck Foundation announced grants Columbia will use to establish two complementary research programs in cognitive neuroscience.
The Charles A. Dana Foundation has made a $1.5 million gift to Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons supporting a postdoctoral training program that will bring new investigators into brain behavior research, primarily in the area of cognitive neuroscience. The fellows will work initially on forging links between ongoing genetic molecular-based studies in mice and imaging studies in normal human subjects and in patients with disorders of memory and other aspects of cognition. The Charles A. Dana Foundation is a private, philanthropic foundation that supports health, education, and research in the field of neuroscience, seeking better ways to diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases and disorders that afflict millions of Americans.

A second effort in mind-brain research at Columbia has been stimulated by the new Keck Center in Behavioral Plasticity, established with a $3.5 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation. The Keck Foundation, one of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations, supports science, engineering, and biomedical research in colleges and universities. The Keck Center is one of only three Universitywide centers at Columbia. It will bring five new junior faculty to Columbia–three to the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior on the University’s Health Sciences campus at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center and two to the Department of Psychology on the Morningside Heights campus. The Keck Center is designed to bridge the strengths in neurosciences of the Health Sciences campus and cognitive neuroscience of the Morningside campus. This new program is founded on the conviction that understanding mental function will require studies that span the whole spectrum of research on molecular, cellular, systems, and clinical levels. The center will explore a range of topics from studies in mice on how genes contribute to memory, developmental and perceptual plasticity, to studies in humans on cognitive plasticity.

“These gifts from two prominent foundations recognize Columbia’s growing strengths in neuroscience and signify an investment in the enormous potential this field holds for human health. It is money we will invest wisely for dividends that will have significant human value,” says George Rupp, Ph.D., president of Columbia University.

Herbert Pardes, M.D., vice president for Health Sciences and dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Columbia, adds: “Columbia University is now positioned to provide national leadership in neuroscience and behavior in the 21st century. These innovative new programs will bridge the techniques and insights of molecular biology to those of cognitive psychology, enhancing a powerful new approach to cognitive neuroscience we have inititated at Columbia University, known as molecular cognition.”

The new programs are designed to expand this novel approach to brain and behavior, which Columbia has pioneered in the past few years. The new programs are designed to expand this approach from studies in mice to non-human primates to human clinical studies. “The application of this approach is essential for the mechanistic analysis of behavior and is likely to have a wide impact on clinical psychiatry and neurology,” said Eric Kandel, M.D., University Professor and Howard Hughes senior investigator, who will direct the Dana Program and the Keck Center. “To understand the brain, both as the organ of mental function and as a target for disease, we need to understand at the cellular and the molecular level the behavioral and systems function of the brain in both animal models and humans.”

To assure the development of this broad approach–from gene to cognition–Columbia sought and received the initial financial support required to start two bridging areas. “The first, systems neural science, focuses on the brain systems involved in the perceptual and motor learning of animal models. It is this area that will strengthen the Health Sciences campus,” says Dr. Kandel. “The second, cognitive psychology, examines the computational mechanisms of memory storage and their implications for human performance as well as the impairment that occurs when these mechanisms fail, leading to problems in perception and execution of complex motor strategies in humans. It is this area that will strengthen the Morningside campus.”

Faculty participating in the two programs include some of the most preeminent leaders in the field. The Health Sciences faculty includes, in addition to Eric Kandel, Richard Axel, M.D., Higgins Professor of Biochemistry and Pathology, Howard Hughes investigator, and a pioneer in research on the sense of smell; Tom Jessell, Ph.D., Professor of Biochemistry and Howard Hughes investigator, who studies how brain circuits for behavior develop; Steven Siegelbaum, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology and Howard Hughes investigator, who studies how signaling in the brain is modified by learning; René Hen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pharmacology, who studies the biology of aggression; and Richard Mayeux, M.D., Gertrude Sergievsky Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry, who studies the molecular epidemiology of memory disorders in elderly patients. The faculty members on the Morningside campus include Lynn Cooper, Ph.D., and Janet Metcalfe, Ph.D., Professors of Psychology, who have pioneered the study of memory in humans; and Darcy Kelley, Ph.D., Martin Chalfie, Ph.D., and Eduardo Macagno, Ph.D., Professors of Biology, who study elementary components of behavior in simple animals.

The Keck Center will use existing space and an additional 4,000 square feet in the New York State Psychiatric Institute’s new building at Columbia-Presbyterian and 3,000 square feet in the biology and psychology departments on the Morningside campus.

“How the brain controls mental activity–thinking, feeling, learning, remembering, and self-awareness–constitute some of the greatest challenges not only for biology and medicine but for all of science in the next century,” Dr. Kandel remarked. “We are grateful to the Dana Foundation and to the Keck Foundation for their generous support enabling us to take important steps toward uncovering clues about both normal brain activity and three of the most devastating mental disorders–schizophrenia, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.” ###

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