The brain remains one of the final frontiers of science.
Researchers are only beginning to unlock how addiction works, how the brain controls other organs, the causes of brain diseases, among other mysteries.
In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair meets a pair of researchers who are launching a new collaborative at Kent State University to tap into Northeast Ohio’s ‘brain trust.’
Michael Lehman is a neuroscientist who believes in the power of collaboration.
“If we are to fully understand how the brain works, complex functions like memory, emotion, even how we plan for events, we can’t just take one level of analysis, we have to use multiple levels ranging from molecular and cells all the way up to behavior and cognition."
That's one of the reasons he came to Kent State to help launch the new Brain Health Research Institute.
"We have to cross boundaries because we have to draw in people from many different types of disciplines. Institutes are a way that we can cross those boundaries and it’s also a way that we can go beyond the university boundary. We have active external partners with NEOMED, Akron Children’s, with Cleveland Clinic, and Case Western Reserve University in which we’re actually building a regional network of collaborations that will go beyond the expertise we have on the Kent campus.”
Lehman is joined in running the institute by his wife, researcher Lique Coolen, who also collaborates on research projects.
“Lique and I are both what we call integrative level neuroscientists," says Lehman.
"We’re interested in how sets of neurons mediate very basic brain functions. We have our independent areas of research, but our lab is a shared lab, and our trainees/students get exposed to a lot of different areas of neuroscience and research. It’s a really rich training environment.”
The addicted brain
Lique Coolen's research focuses on substance abuse and addiction.
"We’re particularly interested in why some individuals are so vulnerable to develop addiction. You know, some people can experience drugs and not become addicted, while others do, and we’re trying to get to the core of what makes that happen.”
Coolen is studying how drugs hijack the brain’s pleasure centers.
“Opioids, psychostimulants, alcohol, they all act on the part of the brain that is there for emotion, motivation, and behavior. Drugs change it, maybe in a permanent way, definitely in a very long-term way that makes the individual crave and seek drugs even after many years of abstinence. What my lab is trying to understand is, how does that part of the brain normally function in normal emotional behavior? And how does the experience of really rich rewarding behavior, perhaps food or different types of palatable reward, change the seeking of drugs of abuse?”
One question she's tackling is whether it's possible for the brains of people addicted to drugs to relearn how to respond to simple pleasures.
“I would like to be optimistic and say absolutely," Coolen says, "but I think for that we need to have a better understanding of what this part of the brain normally does, and how going back to a very rich emotional life can help with curing drug addiction.”
A new class of neurons
Michael Lehman, in addition to running the institute, plans to still spend time in the lab with a focus on how the brain controls reproduction.
"It’s a fundamental aspect of our lives in that the brain controls the onset of puberty, adult reproduction including menstrual cycles, and reproductive aging. The major reproductive disease we’ve been studying is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS. It’s the most common disease among reproductive-aged women, it occurs in about 8-10 percent of women, and it’s a major cause of infertility as well as metabolic disease and disorders.”
Lehman and Lique Coolen in 2007 discovered a new class of brain cells that regulate reproductive hormones in the brain. They began calling them ‘Kandy’ cells, based on the first letters of the three neurochemicals produced by the cells - kisspeptin, neurokinin B and dynorphin. And the name stuck…
“It entered the literature, now all of our colleagues and publications refer to this very important group of cells as KNDy cells. Understanding how they work essentially gives us insight into reproductive disease,” says Lehman.
Naming a new class of neurons, says Lehman, is on the level of naming a nebula or a star cluster.
"I think it’s a great analogy to the stars because the brain is really one of those final frontiers. It’s understanding who we are and how we are.
Kent State University is hosting a public symposium on The Neuroscience of the Addicted Brain on April 4th and 5th.