New Institute for Brain, Mind, Genes and Behavior Established

A new Duke University institute is asking what makes people think, feel and behave the way they do -- and its researchers say the answers may not only advance scientific understanding but also provide insight into societal problems and help patients who have a variety of disorders or diseases. One of several interdisciplinary groups that will participate in the new institute is the Duke Center for Neuroengineering.

"The mission of the Institute for Brain, Mind, Genes and Behavior is to create a new approach to exploring one of the most challenging yet promising frontiers of scientific discovery today -- the human mind," said Dr. R. Sanders Williams, dean of the medical school. "We want to foster an environment where knowledge and research are connected to real-world problems."

"A number of problems that society and science now face have aspects that are neurobiological, genetic, behavioral and social," said Dr. Dale Purves, one of three interim co-directors for the institute. "The list includes alcoholism, Alzheimer's disease, autism, cardiovascular disease, gambling and violence, among many others. The institute will bring together researchers from a variety of disciplines to study issues such as these, which have varied and complex causes and effects."

"Duke has particular strength in the crucial elements -- neuroscience, medicine, genetics and psychology -- that comprise brain and mind science, as well as in the social sciences that inform public policy decisions," said John Simon, vice provost for academic affairs. "The institute's interdisciplinary approach in meshing these elements will make it possible for the whole at Duke to be greater than the sum of the parts."

The institute will focus on more than research, Simon added. "An important part of its mission will be to enhance educational opportunities in the neurosciences at Duke," he said. "Among various efforts, we plan to form a new undergraduate major in neuroscience and expand training opportunities for graduate students interested in working at the intersections between neuroscience and other disciplines."

Findings by the institute's researchers are expected to provide new scientific rationales for government social policies in such areas as education and to inform programs to prevent drug use, violence or detrimental behaviors, according to university officials. Research findings also may guide thinking in fields such as law, ethics and religion.

"The emergence of neuroscience and its interface with medicine, behavioral science, and policy is likely to add important new tools for understanding why people behave as they do," said interim co-director Timothy Strauman. "How such insights ultimately will be used will depend only on society's collective imagination."

The institute has announced its first call for proposals for projects organized around cutting-edge research themes, and it expects to fund up to two multiyear projects early next year, said interim co-director Dr. Ranga Krishnan.

Among the co-directors, Krishnan is professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Purves is professor in the Department of Neurobiology and director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and Strauman is professor and co-chair of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

University officials said the institute will take advantage of the resources already at hand on Duke's campus. For example, researchers at the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy will carry out a series of advanced genomic analyses of how genetic variation influences the workings of the human mind in functions such as learning and memory, in both clinical and everyday settings. Researchers at the Social Science Research Institute will examine such issues as how social context affects the way people assess risk and how the declines in cognitive abilities associated with aging may affect people's ability to live independently into their elder years.

The Center for Neuroengineering will serve as a resource for modeling, analyzing and developing new technologies that interact with the brain and nervous system, and the Brain Tumor Center and the clinical services sections of the psychiatry and neurology departments will provide access to patient populations needed for clinical research and for drug testing and development.