The Brain: Center of Our Universe

The brain. That mass of crevasses, twists and knolls suspended above our shoulders in an intricate array of bone and flesh is a highly complex structure. Its densely packed network of nearly one trillion nerve cells fires signals back and forth every second at 250 miles per hour.

The brain is the center of our body's universe, the sun around which all our physical and mental activities orbit. With it we taste, smell, hear and see; love, hate, laugh and cry; run, walk, sleep and awaken; feel pleasure, pain, elation and despair. Without it we're like a car without an engine, a home without its occupants, a computer without its CPU. We'd be nothing but skin and bone encasing a bucket full of useless, wilted organs.

That's why so many illnesses humans suffer originate in the nervous system. According to the Society for Neuroscience, 50 million Americans have a permanent neurological disability that limits their daily activities, and 1 in 3 Americans will experience some form of mental disorder at some point in their lives. More than 1 in 20 Americans have developmental disorders of the nervous system, such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, mental retardation and learning disorders, costing some $30 billion a year. Depression, which affects 18 million Americans, disables more people than diabetes, hypertension, gastrointestinal and lung diseases at a cost of $44 billion annually.

Understanding the inner workings of the brain and the rest of the central nervous system—from the molecular-level mechanisms that regulate gene expression, to clinical treatments for Alzheimer's disease, drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and other neurological and psychiatric disorders—makes up the core of OHSU's neuroscience programs.

By tapping this vast network of knowledge in neurological development, degeneration and plasticity, the OHSU neuroscience programs have become one of the scientific world's treasure troves, not only because of their life-extending discoveries, but also because of their ability to work together. OHSU is able to deliver new knowledge through seamless collaboration, and more and more, these discoveries stand out from the crowd because of that collaboration.

This melding of disciplines allows physicians and scientists in OHSU's neurosciences programs to journey deeper into the intricate structure that is the brain. And each day they are rapidly translating the knowledge they gain into the best in healing, teaching and discovery.


OHSU's Research in the Neurosciences:

  • Creates new knowledge about prevention, detection and treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders. It has the potential to unlock the mysteries of health and illness and to spark new therapies to treat and prevent disease and disability.
  • Adds to the understanding of both positive and negative effects of treatments and interventions.
  • Teaches the appropriate use of technology.
  • Allows researchers and faculty to offer innovative thinking at the bedside and in the classroom.
  • Elevates Oregon's status as a national player in efforts to understand the mechanisms of the brain.
  • Helps save lives.

A Foundation of Understanding Leads to Translation of Knowledge

OHSU's neuroscience programs are about more than simply finding ways to cure neurological and psychiatric diseases. They're about exploring and working to understand the entire nervous system, including the spine and the brain, at the molecular and behavioral levels. For example, the efficacy of a drug that improves the quality of life for a person with multiple sclerosis has to result from an understanding of how and why that drug's molecules bind to T cells and keep them from entering the brain to cause tissue damage.

Using such a model to build a foundation of understanding that will lead to more effective prevention, diagnosis and treatment of neurological and psychiatric diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), drug addiction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder, is the essence of translational research.
With the support of the National Institutes of Health and other public and private agencies, the OHSU neurosciences are strengthening that link between the bench where discoveries are made, and the bedside where discoveries are put into clinical practice. The foundation of this melding of scientific expertise has been multidisciplinary collaboration that is spurred by a rich environment in which teams of researchers and clinicians from multiple departments, clinics, institutes and schools work together to translate research into therapies for neurological diseases.

But translational research is not unidirectional. Translational research also involves taking clinical phenomena back to the lab and trying to sort it out.
While today's therapeutics and diagnostics for neurological and psychiatric diseases owe their existence to basic, bench science, those same studies are driven by a push, particularly from a national initiative, to reduce the ever-increasing burden of the more than 1,000 diseases of the nervous system.

The initiative, the NIH Neuroscience Blueprint, identifies three unifying themes: development of the nervous system throughout the lifespan, including factors that control cell specialization, signals that guide the formation of connections among nerve cells, and mechanisms by which genes and experience work to sculpt the nervous system and behavior; degeneration from disease and aging, including the loss of connections or cell death from disease and normal aging; and plasticity of the nervous system, or its ability to change and adapt in response to environmental cues, experience, injury and disease.

These themes weren't developed out of thin air. They reflect the scope of knowledge necessary to fully understand diseases and functions of the nervous system. They also reflect the way in which multiple disciplinesfrom molecular neurobiology to family practice—have become so intertwined that individual, institutional and even international collaboration has become the rule, not the exception.

Performing in areas covering all facets of the NIH Neurosciences Blueprint, researchers at OHSU are changing the way we prevent, diagnose and treat the diseases of the brain and the spine. In fact, using the latest technologies and study methods, they are improving the very way we learn about them.