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Ahead of the curve

Nancy Brown discusses what makes Yale and Yale School of Medicine’s neuroscience departments so strong, and what the future holds.

Dean Nancy J. Brown, MD
Photo by Robert A. Lisak
Dean Nancy J. Brown, MD

What makes Yale and YSM so strong and unique in Neuroscience?
First is our depth of excellence. This extends far beyond the Department of Neuroscience. It includes clinical departments like Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry at YSM, and across campus the Department of Psychology and the many facets of neuroscience that are taught at Yale. A second is the strength of our imaging resources. Yale is a leader in super-resolution light microscopy in addition to our fMRI, PET, and other capabilities—not too many other institutions can claim so many sophisticated methodologies on one campus. A third source of strength is the ability of our clinicians, biomedical engineers, and researchers to carry out procedures like deep brain stimulation. Newer technologies like stereotactic surgery and nanotechnology that can be used to deliver drugs and cross the blood-brain barrier are very promising.

Immunobiology touches on neurosciences as well. We are gaining a better understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, including the role of inflammation. The fact that we have leading immunobiologists and neuroscientists working together on the same problems in one institution is impressive.

How easy is it for different departments to work together at YSM?
Very. Beyond Yale’s culture of collaboration, though, is the breadth of the science in this and related areas. Culture puts people in the same room, but the quality of the science keeps them there.

What other advantages does YSM have with neuroscience?
YSM’s long history with the brain dates back to Harvey Cushing, and its strong history with genetics research complements current efforts. In neuroscience, that means identifying the genetic basis for diseases. Neuropharmacology as well is an area of strength and expertise. As we develop our understanding of neural pathways, we’re able to more effectively employ drugs to treat neurological conditions.

On a more personal note, how have you seen neuroscience progress over your career?
From the time I studied in medical school and afterward during training, the field of neuroscience has progressed dramatically. My generation’s instructors taught physicians to evaluate behavior for signs of neurological damage. Molecular mechanisms in the brain were not easily observed, and therefore not understood. Now, using advanced imagery, we can see molecular pathways, and we have detailed ways of representing connectivity in the brain, not just for normal brain function but also abnormal brain function and psychiatry. Neuroscience has witnessed a remarkable evolution over the course of the 20th century.

What do you see moving forward, on an institutional level?
Neuroscience affects so many fields of research, it’s no surprise that it’s a significant part of our scientific strategic plan. Expanding our knowledge about the brain is a vital issue for humanity. One of the most pressing societal and health problems involves the aging of our population, and accompanying increases in neurodegenerative diseases. We have an opioid epidemic that still requires effective answers that will depend on our researchers together with epidemiologists at Yale School of Public Health. Having a better handle on learning, plasticity, and the brain’s ability to retain information will be hugely important for humanity’s future, as will advances our engineering colleagues have made with artificial intelligence.

In the immediate future, we’ve launched a national search for a new chair of Neuroscience. We’re building out 100 College Street to bring people together across the campus. Between our state-of-the-art facilities and our institutional strengths, I am optimistic that we will find a transformative leader in the field to continue Pietro De Camilli's legacy.