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On the Shoulders of Giants Science Symposium

2014 Program

Pasko Rakic, MD, presented at the Child Mind Institute’s 2014 On the Shoulders of Giants Scientific Symposium.

The 2014 On the Shoulders of Giants Scientific Symposium honoring Pasko Rakic, MD, PhD, took place on October 9, 2014, at The Roosevelt House at Hunter College.

About the Presentations

Neuronal Migration and Brain Map Formation
Pasko Rakic, MD, PhD
The identity, synaptic connection and function of neurons are initially and ultimately defined by their position. It is particularly evident in the cerebral cortex, where constituent neurons are not generated locally but acquire their final positions during prenatal development by active migration from multiple sites of origin. This talk will describe cellular and molecular mechanisms regulating radial and tangential migration of postmitotic neurons from the places of their origin at the transient proliferative zones to their appropriate areal, laminar and columnar positions. Various genetic and environmental factors can cause gross as well as subtle changes in neuron position that eventually affect the pattern of synaptic circuits and, ultimately, may cause a variety of neuropsychiatric disorders.

Neuronal Identity and Connectivity
Nenad Sestan, MD, PhD
This presentation will address recent efforts to understand how neural circuits assemble during development of the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that is critical for cognition, perception and behavior. We will also discuss evidence on how this complex developmental process may have evolved — and how a compromised process may be implicated in human psychiatric and neurological disorders. This presentation will also illustrate a key factor in this research: the integration of complementary approaches at the interface of developmental neurobiology, comparative genomics, and genetics into an interdisciplinary whole.

Gene Discovery, Brain Development and a New Frontier in Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders
Matthew State, MD, PhD
For most of the last two decades, scientists have been stymied in their efforts to find genes contributing to autism spectrum disorders (ASD). However, in the last several years, striking technological advances and effective advocacy efforts have transformed this landscape. The results are challenging long-held notions about neurodevelopmental syndromes in general and autism in particular. Most importantly, the combination of this new genetic information and a deepening understanding of the developing human brain have begun to provide a detailed picture of the mechanisms underlying social disability, providing a critical step in the search for new and more effective treatments. This presentation will explore these new technologies and how the efforts of advocates and interdisciplinary scientists are shaping the future of autism research and intervention.

About the Presenters

Pasko Rakic, MD, PhD, received his medical and graduate degrees in developmental biology and genetics from Belgrade University (former Yugoslavia), where he became assistant professor until being offered a faculty position at Harvard Medical School. He was at Harvard for 8 years before taking the endowed Dorys McConnell Duberg Neuroscience and Neurology professorship at Yale University, where he is also chairman of the Department of Neurobiology and director of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience.

Dr. Rakic’s research interests are in developmental neurobiology, particularly cellular and molecular mechanisms of neuronal proliferation, migration and synaptogenesis during development and evolution of the cerebral and cerebellar cortex. His studies led to the postulate of the “radial unit” and “protomap” hypotheses of cortical development and evolution that provide the framework for understanding normal and pathological development of the human brain. By manipulating the rate and pattern of neuronal migration, using genetic tools and environmental factors, he and his colleagues discovered the hidden abnormalities of neuronal positioning that cannot be discerned by routine postmortem examination of the human brain, providing explanations for the pathogenesis of a variety of congenital malformations including lissencephaly, polymicrogyria and childhood epilepsy, as well as new insight into possible developmental origin of disorders of higher brain functions, such as autism, schizophrenia and forms of mental retardation.

Dr. Rakic is a member of the National Academy of Sciences (USA); American Academy of Arts and Sciences; Institute of Medicine (USA); and a foreign member of Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Serbian Academy of ­Sciences and Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has also been President of the Society for Neuroscience. His honors include Karl Spencer Lashley Award, Francois I Medal, College de France, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pasarow, Henry Gray, Gerard and Fyssen Science Prize, and most recently Kavli Neuroscience Prize for his discoveries on how the neurons in the embryonic brain arrange themselves during development into the complex, densely interconnected synaptic circuitry of the adult cerebral cortex.

Nenad Sestan, MD, PhD, is a professor of neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine and a member of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience (  He obtained his MD from the University of Zagreb and his PhD in neurobiology from Yale University. Dr. Sestan’s research has been concerned with molecular mechanisms involved in the formation of neural circuits in the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that is critical for cognition, perception and behavior. His laboratory has also studied how these developmental mechanisms have evolved and become compromised in human disorders.

Dr. Sestan is the recipient of several international awards and honors, including the Krieg Cortical Discoverer Award, NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Award, and McDonnell Scholar Award, as well as research awards from the Simons Foundation, the March of Dimes Foundation, the Whitehall Foundation, the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, and the Tourette Syndrome Association. He has also served as a key principal investigator for the BrainSpan and PsychENCODE consortia.

Matthew State, MD, PhD, received his undergraduate and medical degrees from Stanford University, completed his residency in psychiatry and fellowship in child psychiatry at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, and then earned a PhD in genetics at Yale. He joined the Yale faculty in 2001 and remained there until 2013, where he was the Donald J. Cohen Professor of Child Psychiatry, Psychiatry and Genetics. In 2013 he moved to University of California, San Francisco, and is now the Oberndorf Family Distinguished Professor and Chair, Department of Psychiatry, and the director of the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute.

Dr. State’s lab studies the genetics of childhood neuropsychiatric disorders, with a particular interest in the contribution of rare mutations to autism and Tourette’s disorder. Their work has been cited twice, both by Science magazine and by the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the NIH, as a top-ten scientific breakthrough of the year. Dr. State leads several international collaborations aimed at gene discovery and has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Ruane Prize for Research in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and induction into the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.