It's Brain Awareness Week! To celebrate, we'll post a series of mini-Q&As with MIT Press authors throughout the week. Paul H. Patterson, neurobiologist and author of Infectious Behavior: Brain-Immune Connections in Autism, Schizophrenia, and Depression, kicks us off.
What sparked your interest in developmental neurobiology?
I did my PhD in membrane biochemistry and then wanted to "figure out how the brain works". I chose dissociated neuronal cell culture as an informative and feasible approach to biochemical questions. These neurons growing in vitro presented an attractive preparation for studying neuronal development, and one could add other types of cells at will and see how that affected development. It turned out that adding certain non-neuronal cells to cultured neurons radically altered the type of neurons that eventually developed. We pursued the active factor that drove these changes and eventually found it to be a cytokine, later termed LIF. Over the years, we found that LIF is critically important in the brain's response to injury and disease. In this way, we accidentally stumbled on interactions between the brain and immune systems. In fact, we just published on a gene therapy approach, delivering LIF to a multiple sclerosis mouse model and achieved remarkable remyelination.
How have your research interests and methods changed over the course of your career?
Starting at Harvard and then at Caltech, I gave lectures on mental illness and became dissatisfied with the mouse models available at the time. I thought we should try to make a contribution in this area. We made use of the epidemiology showing that infection during pregnancy can increase the risk of schizophrenia in the offspring. Making a mouse model of this risk factor has proven a productive approach, allowing us to examine how the maternal response to infection alters fetal brain development. The model is also useful for exploring potential therapeutic approaches. It is now being used in at least 35 laboratories around the world.
What kinds of changes (if any) do you think we need to make in brain science education?
I'd like to see more information on the brain introduced early on in school--by 4th grade, for instance. I've given such lectures and demos to young kids and they are really intrigued. It's a natural inroad to getting kids interested in science, as everyone wants to know how we think, remember, communicate etc.