SNF Brain Insight Lecture on the Neuroscience of Movement

Dr. Thomas Jessell at the podium for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lecture at Columbia University. Photo by Eleni Sakellis

By Eleni Sakellis

NEW YORK – The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lecture on the Neuroscience of Movement took place on Tuesday, April 25 with Columbia University Professor Thomas M. Jessell, PhD, sharing his pioneering research into how the brain tells the body to move — and what happens in diseases when this process goes awry.

Dr. Jessell has spent his career investigating the mechanisms behind motor control. He has helped to define how individual neurons communicate and assemble into larger groups of complex circuits that give an organism the ability to perform fine motor tasks. His work may enable more effective therapies for people with spinal cord injuries or movement disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Dr. Jessell is the Claire Tow Professor the Departments of Neuroscience, and Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, at Columbia University. He is also an investigator in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and a foreign member of the U.S. Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences.

The talk is part of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lecture series, offered free to the public to enhance understanding of the biology of the mind and the complexity of human behavior. The lectures are hosted by Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Among those in attendance at the event were renowned neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate Dr. Eric Kandel- University Professor at Columbia, Kavli Professor and Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Sciences, co-director of the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative at Columbia University Medical Center; Vasili Tsamis- Chief Operating Officer of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, and many students and teachers.

Dr. Kandel gave the opening remarks, noting that it is an exciting time for Columbia and for the Zuckerman Institute, pointing out that they are indebted to philanthropy that makes the work and remarkable research of the Institute possible, and thanked the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for their support. He then introduced his former student and now colleague and longtime friend Dr. Jessell whose research, Dr. Kandel said, has changed the study of the brain, especially his research on ALS, one of the most devastating illnesses. As Director of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Tom, he said, makes all the hard decisions. Before beginning his lecture, Dr. Jessell observed that without Dr. Kandel and his groundbreaking work, the Institute would not exist.

The lecture focused on Dr. Jessell’s research and experiments into the neuroscience of movement. He illustrated his findings with images, video, charts, and graphs that all highlight how very complicated movement actually is when the circuits that control movement are studied closely. A combination of different senses is needed to create sophisticated movement, like that of famed violinist Joshua Bell in a video clip Dr. Jessell showed the audience. Skillful motor tasks are not, however, only for humans. Other animals, including mice, also make “skilled limb movements” that are studied to help scientists uncover patterns of muscle activity and how motor neurons are involved in the process.

The study of the development of motor control systems is profoundly important as it has implications for the study and treatment of diseases like ALS. Dr. Jessell referred to the work of scientists Tom Maniatis and Serge Przedborski and their experiment that found the ALS mutant gene astrocytes are toxic to motor neurons. The painstaking work involved is creating great strides in the field of neuroscience. Dr. Jessell noted that soon the Institute would be moving into their new building, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, that will house 58 or 59 labs all doing neural science. Dr. Kandel observed that no one has moved science as much as Tom has, calling him the Sherrington of our time.

The event was also available for livestream.