What's in a name? At Johns Hopkins, a formal
Department of Neuroscience was founded 25 years ago, but
the institution's contributions to understanding and
studying the brain started three-quarters of a century
before that, in 1906.
The long history of brain sciences at Johns Hopkins
and the many contributions of the institution's researchers
are outlined in the Oct. 20 issue of Neuron by the first
and only director the Hopkins department has ever had.
Solomon Snyder took the reins of the fledgling department
on July 1, 1980.
"There were enclaves of scientists and physicians
studying the brain in various departments at Hopkins well
before 1980," recalls Snyder, who came to Hopkins in 1965
for his clinical residency in psychiatry and never left.
"But creating the department allowed people studying the
brain in one way — by studying what brain cells do,
for instance — to work in close proximity and share
their knowledge with those using different techniques and
approaches. Together with the three brain-centered clinical
departments, Hopkins has an exceptionally robust
environment in which to study the brain."
Snyder, Distinguished Service Professor of
Psychiatry, will be among those honored
Nov. 11 at a gala dinner at the Renaissance Hotel in
Baltimore and at the symposium Discovery and Hope: A
Celebration of Brain Science at Johns Hopkins earlier that
day. Snyder is expected to step down as department director
sometime this year while remaining a full-time faculty
member and head of his thriving research laboratory.
Two Nobel laureates, Richard Axel and Eric Kandel, and
six others — Cori Bargmann, Roger Nicoll, Carla
Shatz, William T. Newsome III, Fred Gage and Huda Zoghbi
— have confirmed their participation in the
symposium. Johns Hopkins neuroscientists Rick Huganir and
Snyder will provide opening and closing remarks,
On the previous day, Nov. 10, the Department of
Neurology will hold a symposium featuring Hopkins
scientists and neurologists in honor of its upcoming 35th
The first formal brain studies at Johns Hopkins
started in 1906, when Harvey Cushing became the first
director of Neurosurgery. His research established that
hormones secreted from the brain's pituitary gland promote
growth. Walter Dandy, who succeeded Cushing, figured out in
1918 that air could be used to enable X-rays of the brain.
His technique remained the best way to see into the skull
to identify brain tumors and other problems until the
invention of computer aided tomography, or CAT, in 1972.
Around the same time as Dandy's work, the first
director of the Department of Psychiatry, Adolph Meyer, was
instituting an unprecedented science-based approach to the
field. He established laboratories of neuroanatomy,
neurophysiology and a new field he dubbed "psychobiology."
One of the early members of the Psychiatry Department was
Curt Richter, who developed a precise means to measure
aspects of a rat's life and used the system to determine
the molecular and anatomical regulation of the "biological
clock," the minimal daily requirement for vitamins and
minerals, and the scientific basis for the lie detector
test. W. Horsley Gantt, a member of the department at the
same time, was a major figure in introducing Pavlovian
psychiatry to the United States and used Pavlov's technique
to establish models of mental illness in dogs.
In 1933, Phillip Bard came to Hopkins to be the fourth
director of the Department of Physiology and to carry out
research to identify the region of the brain that caused
"sham rage" in cats. His work showed that this behavior
could be caused by stimulating the posterior hypothalamus,
a finding that helped create the idea that the hypothalamus
and limbic system in the brain are responsible for
In the late 1930s, Bard helped recruit Chicago's Ralph
Gerard to Hopkins because the latter had developed and used
techniques to measure the electrical output of the brain.
While at Hopkins, Gerard refined the techniques and used
them to map areas of the brain responsible for detecting
the sensation of touch.
Vernon Mountcastle, who succeeded Bard in 1964 as
director of Physiology, in the late 1950s added to Gerard's
earlier findings by using microelectrodes to more finely
map excitation in the brain, which revealed the brain's
"columnar" organization, now known to be a universal
organizing principle of the brain.
Since those early years when the brain's "big picture"
was still a blank canvas, research in the brain sciences at
Hopkins has expanded to investigate questions both big and
small. For example, researchers in the Zanvyl Krieger
Mind/Brain Institute on the Homewood campus are studying
recognition, sensation and other "big" capabilities, while
some on the East Baltimore campus are measuring electrical
signals from individual neurons in a laboratory dish to
study how they react to different stimulation.
Four major areas of investigation occupy the time of
brain scientists at Hopkins: cellular and molecular
neuroscience; systems, cognitive and computational
neuroscience; developmental neuroscience; and neurobiology
Scientists working in the first area are looking into
what roles different types of cells play in the brain, what
genes and proteins allow brain cells of various
descriptions — neurons, astrocytes and glia —
to do what they do, and what molecules are involved in the
cells' communications with one another. Snyder, for
instance, uncovered in the early 1970s the natural docking
place for opiates on brain cells and more recently
identified key roles for two gases — nitric oxide and
carbon monoxide — as messengers that help brain cells
Some of those studying systems, cognitive and
computational neuroscience are using engineering and
computer science to model certain capabilities of the
brain, like the processes that allow us to reach for and
touch a target, and others are interested in answering some
of the most fundamental, long-standing questions of the
brain. Huganir and his colleagues, through their efforts to
understand the big question of how learning and memory
occur, have actually created a forgetful mouse.
Scientists working in the area dubbed developmental
neuroscience might study the protein and molecular cues
that control and direct nerves' growth during early
development in species from frogs to mice or what the cues
are that tell a cell to become a nerve cell in the first
place. David Ginty, Alex Kolodkin and others are
identifying signals that direct nerves' initial growth,
hoping that the knowledge might reveal ways to successfully
regrow damaged nerves.
And, of course, scientists at Hopkins studying the
biological problems underlying diseases of the brain and
nervous system are trying to understand what causes these
diseases with the hope that their knowledge will help lead
to new treatments or even prevention. These scientists are
probing genetic ties to diseases like bipolar disorder and
Parkinson's disease, or looking for targets that might help
prevent secondary damage that occurs after stroke, or
trying to unravel the complex factors that lead to cells'
death in diseases like muscular dystrophies and Alzheimer's
disease. Akira Sawa recently uncovered a major role for the
cancer gene p53 in controlling nerve cells' death in
Huntington's disease, for example.
At its inception, Hopkins' Neuroscience Department was
one of the first in the nation, and today it is the largest
of the basic science departments at the School of Medicine,
with 25 primary faculty. Another 78 Hopkins faculty have
secondary or joint appointments in Neuroscience, including
two dozen or so whose primary appointments are in the
departments of Neurology, Neurosurgery or Psychiatry. In
the Department of Neurology, there are roughly 75 primary
faculty; in the Department of Neurosurgery, 24. The
Department of Psychiatry, founded almost 100 years ago,
boasts 139 full-time faculty members with primary
At the Nov. 11 symposium, topics include the latest on
our understanding of smell, vision, learning and memory,
decision making and balance-eroding diseases called
The separate Nov. 10 symposium, called Looking
Forward: Tomorrow's Neurology, will include scientific
presentations by nine Hopkins Neurology faculty members and
three outside neurologists on topics ranging from the
genetics of multiple sclerosis to new treatment options
being developed for multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's
disease, muscular dystrophies and motor neuron diseases.
The Society for Neuroscience annual meeting starts in
Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Nov. 12.