Understand the Brain with Medical Research

My name is Patrick Beukema. I’m a graduate
student researcher in the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh. I study motor
learning – in general, how we learn to perform exquisitely precise movements, what parts
of the brain are involved in that process- For example, shooting a free throw or playing
the piano, all of these are really relatively complex movements from the standpoint of neuroscience,
and so I study how the brain changes in order to facilitate the acquisition of these complex
skills. My mother is a physician. She’s an anesthesiologist,
and she loves it. She would do medical missions. She would talk to me about how young kids
would have cleft lip or cleft palate, and she would do the surgeries for them, so that
was I think my motivation to begin with to get interested in biomedicine initially, or
medicine in general, and then sort of the logical next step for me was to go into science
research. I think what got me into science initially,
and why I’ve stayed in science, is it’s really sort of where I think a lot of the discoveries
happen that end up, you know… helping people. What’s really fascinating to me is how much
of our brain is dedicated to motor learning. I think we’re more used to thinking of the
brain as able to solve these complex cognitive problems, like for example a game of chess.
That’s a very difficult game to learn and to become skilled at, but just moving the
pieces on the chess board also takes enormous training; it’s just that we’re so good at
it, we don’t consider it this difficult problem that we need to overcome – we just sort of
automatically learn from when we’re children how to, you know- move efficiently in the
world. We’ve solved the problem of chess from an algorithmic standpoint – we can design
computer programs to beat the best chess player currently in the world – but we can’t, or
we have much more difficulty designing robots to move the pieces on a chess board, and if
you think about the hierarchy of learning, you might expect that, you know- the actual
game would be more difficult to solve than just moving the pieces on the board – you
know, physically moving the pieces – but in fact, we’ve had more difficulty with the latter
problem, which is very interesting because that means that motor processes, motor learning,
skill acquisition, is an extremely complicated problem that the brain solves, and a lot of
the neurons in your brain are dedicated to making expert movements, and if we want to
understand and help design treatments and cures for people who suffer from motor diseases
like Parkinson’s or Huntington’s, then we better understand how the brain learns to
make complex movements in the first place. I think the bottom line is when you think
about the brain, it’s hard not to be interested in the brain, right, because it’s how we experience
the world, and yet once you start getting into the neuroscience, getting into the study,
you realize we really have very limited understanding of a lot of complex phenomena, and that’s,
like, kind of shocking. You know, like we experience the world as just a series of electrical
impulses. That’s every single experience you’ve ever had is just a population of neurons firing,
which is kind of mind-boggling when you think about it. You know, you think you’re experiencing
the world in real time, but you’re not. You know, you’re experiencing the past, and it’s
just the result of electrical activity in your brain, and the most fun aspects of being
an academic or being a scientific researcher is the joy of discovering something that no
one has ever seen before or no one knew. Being at the forefront – at truly, like, the
cutting edge of what we know about how the brain works – I think is one of the most cutting
edge aspects of being an academic and being a scientist. You’re surrounded by tons of
really creative, really intelligent people who are basically sort of united in a common
goal, and so that makes for really exciting conversations. I mean I’m surrounded by a
great team here in my lab, and I think one aspect of science that might be sort of missed
in the media is that big discoveries and big innovation is the result of, like, massive
team efforts. When you study science, you learn to look
at the world in a different way – you know, in a very vigorous, analytical, but also creative
way. In addition to all the career prospects you’ll have and, you know- the exciting jobs
you’ll have after you graduate, you’ll have a perspective of the world that is really
unique and priceless, you know, in terms of appreciating the wonder, sort of, that is
our natural world – and the human brain, in my case – and I just think that that’s priceless,
I guess.

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