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Professors to draft 'blueprint' of brain using state-of-the-art scanning technology

It takes brains to be at Princeton, but if you want to make use of the University's newest science facility, you will need more than your own.

Last month the University established the Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior — a gathering of interdisciplinary researchers who are studying the connection between the physical brain and its mental functions.


The departments already involved in the center include molecular biology, psychology, applied math, electrical engineering, chemistry, physics and philosophy, according to center director and psychology professor Jonathan Cohen.

"In the past, psychology has studied the mind without too much concern for how it arose from the brain," Cohen said. "We are going from the bottom up with cellular physiology and from the top down with psychology."

The CSBMB will be able to explore the brain with a $2-million functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, or fMRI.

"The scanner is one visible manifestation of the study of the human brain," Cohen said. "This is the first opportunity to see how a living, intact brain works."

Cohen added the fMRI will provide a "blueprint" of the brain for scientists. "You wouldn't expect a Boeing engineer not to have a plan, and the brain is much more complex than an airplane," he said.

The scanner, which will be in use by the fall, is twice as powerful as a conventional fMRI and will be the only scanner in use outside of a medical setting in the country.


"We have already been doing some scanning at a nearby facility," Cohen said. "But this scanner is research dedicated. It will have a higher field strength."

Chemistry professor Warren Warren is part of the CSBMB and has been working on improving fMRI resolution for brain research.

"This will be a much better machine," Warren said. "How do you do research in a strong molecular biology department if you don't have a good medical school? Establishing these centers is the way we do this."

"There is a chance that in 10 to 20 years, this will convert psychology into a physical science," Warren added.

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In addition to the sophisticated equipment the CSBMB scientists will use, they also will be experimenting with applied math to better understand how the brain works.

Mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Philip Holmes is using applied math to model the brain.

"Basic building blocks in the brain can be described with differential equations," Holmes said. "What's missing is the instruction manual. The imaging provides the data to discover which organs in the brain are active. Now we have data on which to base a model."

The professors said the scanner will be available for undergraduate independent work.

"One of our goals is to try to focus and enrich the undergraduate opportunities to study neuroscience," Cohen said. "There should be new courses in this cutting-edge field."

Holmes echoed Cohen's interest in involving undergraduates in the program. "This is ideal for undergraduates," he said. "It is relatively new, and if it doesn't work out you still learn something."