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Neuroscience Research Institute Launched

Neuroscience Research Institute Launched

New University Park-focused Institute replaces the Program in Neural, Informational and Behavioral Sciences

By Eva Emerson
November 2005

Neuroscientists describe learning as a process in which new experiences lead to a physical re-organization of the brain’s neural circuitry. At USC, neuroscientists are doing some re-structuring of their own.

USC College recently announced the launch of the Neuroscience Research Institute (NRI), marking a major re-organization and re-naming of the 23-year-old Neural, Informational and Behavioral Sciences (NIBS) program. The new institute will operate as an independent unit of USC College with a mission to facilitate and promote neuroscience research at the University Park campus.

Alan Watts, a professor of biological sciences in the College who has led the NIBS program for the last year, will direct the institute.

Since 1982, NIBS has brought together USC scientists interested in studies of the brain, nervous system and related topics, providing a forum for interaction, collaboration and education across the disciplines. It consisted of more than 80 faculty from the College, the Viterbi School of Engineering, the Keck School of Medicine, the Davis School of Gerontology, the School of Pharmacy, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles and the Independent Health Professions.

“The creation of NIBS was an inspired move on the College’s part,” said Watts, crediting Bill Wagner, then dean of natural sciences and mathematics, as being the prime mover in organizing NIBS. Watts noted that Wagner established the program to reflect a broader recognition by psychologists, computer scientists, neurologists, biologists, gerontologists, linguists, engineers, mathematicians and others that only through interdisciplinary efforts could scientists ever hope to understand the brain and nervous system.

Since then, the word “neurosciences” has become shorthand for this interdisciplinary approach. Neuroscience has thrived on it, becoming one of the most promising fields of the 21st century. Modern neuroscience encompasses many fields, from the biological bases of emotion and the molecular mechanisms underlying learning to the study of Alzheimer’s disease and the design of new computers based in part upon neural principles.

USC neuroscientists’ discoveries have led to advances in medicine, technology, education and the social sciences.

“NIBS provides a proven model of how to set up an interdisciplinary research effort,” Watts said. “But NIBS was established decades ago, and things have changed.”

It was time for the program to change too, Watts said. “The kinds of research we do has grown, and includes topics that don’t quite fit into these categories. So we thought we should re-focus the mission and re-name NIBS to reflect these changes.”

Neuroscientist Michael Quick, dean of research in the College, concurred: “The NIBS name didn’t include the cellular and molecular researchers, a group which has grown in numbers and strength in the last decade. In some ways, the name reflected the narrower focus of the program” when it was first created.

In 1987, pioneering neuroscientist Richard F. Thompson was recruited to USC College to build the NIBS program and served as its director until 2001. Thompson holds the W.M. Keck Chair in Biological Sciences and is a professor of psychology. Since 1989, USC neuroscience efforts have been centered in the Hedco Neuroscience Building, a facility built to house NIBS colleagues from an array of disciplines and schools. In 1996, NIBS faculty began the university-wide Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP). The program, which now boasts some 90 students, allows doctoral students to work with any NGP faculty member, no matter the school or department.

The increasing prominence of the NGP also influenced the recent decision to change the name of NIBS. According to Watts, many people mistakenly refer to the NGP when they mean NIBS, the research arm of the program. The new name will help distinguish the two.

“It’s partly an identity issue,” Watts said. “The ‘Neuroscience Research Institute’ tells you what it does. People outside of USC didn’t know what NIBS stood for.”

Changing the name also topped the list of recommendations made by an academic review committee in a 2000 evaluation. The report said, “…the current name, while useful and appropriate when the program was founded, does not reflect the true nature of the current program or its anticipated future direction….”

Watts said that the establishment of the Zilkha Neurogenetics Institute at the Keck School of Medicine — as well as the recent expansion of basic neuroscience research at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles — has changed the mission of NIBS.

“The NRI will focus on research activities on this campus and will foster research in a way that individual departments can’t,” Watts said. “We want to continue the synergy NIBS created between biological sciences, psychology, computer sciences, biomedical engineering, gerontology, together with the Dornsife Neuroscience Imaging Center and the new Institute for the Neurological Study of Emotion, Decision Making and Creativity led by Antonio Damasio.”

“But it is also essential for the NRI to maintain its links with the university-wide neuroscience community,” he said.

Through membership in the Provost’s Neuroscience Advisory Group, as well as the NGP, University Park neuroscientists will remain closely linked with those on the Health Sciences campus and, increasingly, at CHLA’s Saban Research Institute.

New Graduate Program Director
Watts also recently announced that vision scientist Norberto Grzywacz has been named director of the Neuroscience Graduate Program, replacing Michael Quick in the post. A professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience, Grzywacz directs the Center for Vision Science and Technology and was a 2003–04 Fellow of the USC Center for Interdisciplinary Research.

“This is a first for the NGP in that Norberto is a faculty member from the Viterbi School of Engineering, and he will help enormously to strengthen the ties between the College and Viterbi,” said Watts, who has been standing in as the NGP director for the past months. “I think Norberto will do a tremendous job.”