Columbia University in the City of New York

Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute Celebrates First Decade of Discovery

Showcase of research from experts on vision, memory and touch highlights progress and what’s to come

Richard Axel, MD, introducing Rudy Behnia, PhD, Dmitriy Aronov, PhD, and Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, PhD (Credit: Sam Hollenshead for Columbia's Zuckerman Institute)

NEW YORK — Magic can happen over breakfast.

In 2002, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger met with two of the university’s Nobel laureates — Eric Kandel, MD, whose work on how learning and memory earned him the prize in 2000, and Richard Axel, MD, who would receive his 2004 Nobel for landmark studies into the molecular bases of olfaction. Over eggs and coffee, these luminaries sketched out a vision that would evolve into a world-class neuroscience institute, and a transformative trajectory for the university now embodied in the Manhattanville Campus.

It was on that young campus, in a packed auditorium on October 25, that President Bollinger joined with a powerhouse lineup of Zuckerman Institute founders, philanthropists, leaders and neuroscientists to mark the 10th anniversary of the endowment by Mortimer B. Zuckerman — a real-estate entrepreneur, publisher and philanthropist — that helped transform a chat over breakfast into a vibrant neuroscience hub. In the audience were Zuckerman family members including Eric and Jamie Gertler. Another infusion of support now stands, nine stories tall, as the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, home to the institute’s some 850 researchers from 19 different university departments.

At the anniversary event, entitled “From Memory to the Senses: Celebrating a Decade of Discovery,” President Bollinger recalled the original vision for the institute: a place that would bring together researchers from different disciplines to promote collaboration for asking big questions and solving big problems.“And that is what happened,” he told an audience of hundreds at The Forum, the gateway building to the Manhattanville Campus. “We created what we now are celebrating.”

The celebration unfolded by way of a fast-paced scientific discussion, led by Dr. Axel, a founding co-director of the Zuckerman Institute, with three next-generation neuroscientists shedding new light on the mysteries of the brain. After an historical take on the study of mind and brain, Dr. Axel primed the audience for the neuroscience they were about to encounter.

“Consider perception,” Dr. Axel said. “How can the richness of the external world, a world that consists of discrete physical parameters — the wavelengths of light in vision, frequencies of sound in hearing, and the chemicals of smell and taste – be represented by a brain that consists only of nerve cells whose activity only varies in two dimensions, time and space.”

Then Rudy Behnia, PhD, a principal investigator at the Zuckerman Institute and an assistant professor of neuroscience at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, took the stage to talk about color vision. Color, she said, is essential to our understanding of the world, and our appreciation of beauty in nature and art. “Amazingly, color can elicit emotion,” she added.

Dr. Rudy Behnia explains how her fruit-fly studies are helping uncover the biology of color vision

Dr. Rudy Behnia explains how her fruit-fly studies are helping uncover the biology of color vision (Credit: Sam Hollenshead for Columbia's Zuckerman Institute)


“There is no such thing as color outside of the brain,” Dr. Behnia reminded the audience. She explained that color is a construction of the brain. Outside there are only photons of differing wavelengths. But once the eye’s sensory cells receive these photons and convert them into neuronal activity, the brain manages to elicit our subjective experience of color.

To uncover how humans perceive a vast and vibrant spectrum of colors, Dr. Behnia has turned to fruit flies, and sophisticated tools and methods, to observe how color-responsive neurons and neuronal circuits behave. She described how she and her colleagues are uncovering fundamentals about how light receptors in eyes deconstruct incoming visual signals, how that input is reformatted into neuronal activity and how that activity elicits relevant biological responses. Said Behnia, “We have all the pieces we need to begin to fundamentally understand this gift of color.”
The next speaker was neuroscientist Dmitriy Aronov, PhD, who studies “one of the most remarkable systems of memory we have observed in biology,” said Dr. Axel, referring to tiny 10-gram birds known as chickadees.

Dr. Dmitriy Aronov elaborates on his quest to understand the bases of memory. (Credit: Sam Hollenshead for Columbia's Zuckerman Institute)


Dr. Aronov explained that chickadees can hide 5,000 food items in different locations in a single day, and then later return to each of those locations to retrieve the food. “This is mind boggling,” he said.

He and his lab are devoted to studying what happens in the birds’ brains—specifically in a memory-critical brain region known as the hippocampus—in the exact moment that they hide or retrieve a food item. Dr. Aronov believes this will be an especially telling neurobiological window on memory in general. Key to his studies, he noted, are collaborations with engineers who, for example, helped him build a featherweight technology for recording brain-cell activity of chickadees even as they go about hiding sunflower seeds. “Stay tuned to what chickadees can teach us about our own memory,” said Dr. Aronov, a principal investigator at the Zuckerman Institute and an assistant professor of neuroscience at Columbia’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Dr. Axel then introduced neuroscientist Ishmail Abdus-Saboor, PhD, “to explain how pleasure and pain activate neural circuits and how those are represented in the brain.”

Dr. Ishmail Abdus-Saboor chronicles what it takes to investigate pleasurable and painful touch. (Credit: Sam Hollenshead for Columbia's Zuckerman Institute)


Pain is an evolutionary innovation that has plenty to do with survival, said Dr. Abdus-Saboor, noting that a goal of this foundational research is to identify new pain treatments that are safe and effective, yet not addictive. Making that goal elusive, he said, has been the lack of reliable ways to measure pain in preclinical studies.

“We have set out to circumvent that limitation,” said Dr. Abdus-Saboor, a principal investigator at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute and an assistant professor of biological sciences. To this end, he has innovated a method that relies on high-speed videography, machine vision and artificial intelligence to monitor and quantify micro-movements of mice experiencing something mildly aversive.

Meanwhile, Dr. Abdus-Saboor is also studying cells in the skin specialized for encoding the rewarding nature of social touch. His work stands to inform our understanding of how the touch system is altered “in neuroatypical states, like autism where a cardinal feature is that people don’t like to be touched,” he said. 

Daphna Shohamy, PhD, associate director of Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute and Kavli Professor of Brain Science, closed the scientific program. Dr. Shohamy, who investigates memory and decision-making in the human brain, remarked on the importance of collaborations among scientists. Bringing together scientists from many different disciplines to study the mind and brain in ways that will lead to transformative discoveries is the very premise of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, she said.

“As we move into the next decade of discovery, we are bursting with ideas and pushing toward new frontiers,” said Dr. Shohamy.

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