Last week the Child Mind Institute hosted a fascinating group of scientists for our annual On the Shoulders of Giants symposium, and I have to admit it was a little mind-blowing. Dr. Pasko Rakic, our 2014 Distinguished Scientists Award recipient, began the program by reviewing his 50 years of research into the basic development of the cerebral cortex—the center of our higher-level brain function. Unlike other areas of the brain, he said, all of the neurons the cortex will ever have are produced and “migrate” to their assigned locations early in development. Backed up by his innovative experiments, the picture he painted of this process verged on the fantastic: brain cell after brain cell climbing a rope-like filament to a precise location encoded in our DNA. And if they don’t find their spot correctly, the result can be a psychiatric or developmental disorder.
That code is the “map” of the brain, Dr. Rakic said, and it has been his life’s work to discover its intricacies. At the Roosevelt House at Hunter College, he pointed to a photograph displayed on the wall. “These three people here tried to change the map of the world,” he said, referring to the image of FDR, Churchill, and Stalin. “And why did they fail? None of them were neuroscientists.”
Dr. Rakic’s contributions to our understanding of the human brain have been revolutionary—but he’s even more optimistic about the future, represented in the room by this year’s Child Mind Institute Rising Scientists, high school students in the New York area with an exceptional dedication to scientific inquiry. “Looking at these young people, I must say I envy you,” he told them. “What you are going to be able to discover with the new methods coming your way—you are the giants that are coming.”
Dr. Nenad Sestan echoed Dr. Rakic’s sentiments in his presentation on the specific genetic signaling involved in the development of a single type of cortical neuron; and Dr. Matthew State spoke about how that genetic knowledge may soon lead to improved understanding and treatment of disorders like autism. Dr. State hoped the Rising Scientists would leave the presentation thinking, “Wow, it is an amazing time to be doing this,” and he had this prediction: “Within your lifetimes you are going to be present at a profound transformation of our understanding of mental illness, our ability to treat it, and what it means in society to have a brain disorder.”
With the amazing foundation provided by Drs. Rakic, Sestan, and State, there’s no reason this cannot be true.