Connecting Neurons, Networks and Collaborators

Cross-modal sensory processing. Chaos theory. Exponential random graph modeling. Starlings.

Starlings?

Among the cascading topics Paul Laurienti, MD, PhD, is thinking about, the turns and gyres of a flock of starlings are central. The birds’ murmurations, as the movements are called, form his analogy for complex brain networks—interconnections that make us think, feel, reason, behave, get disease, and, he predicts, that will help us rebuild, reorganize and recover from disease and disability.

Laurienti is professor of radiology and co-founder of the Laboratory for Complex Brain Networks (LCBN) at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The engine for the LCBN’s approach to problem-solving is called network science, which seeks to quantify and analyze networks of dynamic, complex systems.

Laurienti has spoken far and wide on network science to audiences ranging from community groups to international science meeting participants. He was a featured speaker at South by Southwest (SXSW) last year, speaking on biomedical science as a systems-based discipline.

Laurienti admits that network science still sounds radical to many. But he’s helped create a research presence for it alongside traditional approaches to brain research at Wake Forest Baptist.

A New Scientific Revolution

“At South by Southwest, I talked about how we need to change the way we think about medicine as a whole,” Laurienti says, “not just look for the one drug, the one treatment. Medicine in the last century was trying to keep us alive. Now it needs to keep us healthy. This is a different model—this needs to be about the whole system.”

His presentations sparkle with artful pictures and videos of starlings, schools of fish, flashing brain models and vivid 3-D swirls showing brain nodes. He uses captivating hand-drawn slides that make an audience feel like lucky children getting their math via a beautiful kids’ book.

Laurienti believes the transition from traditional reductionist science to network science research is something of a new scientific revolution. Where science in the past sought to pinpoint and attack the single cell, neuron, node or area causing a problem, research in network science seeks to identify the connections, inputs and influences that combine to become a problem.

Christina Hugenschmidt, PhD, is assistant professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest Baptist’s Sticht Center on Aging and one of Laurienti’s research collaborators. She sees the importance of network analysis methodologies in her research on type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and the brain/body connection in cognitive functioning in older adults.

“The mind is more than neurons,” she says. “If you took all the connections in the brain and rearranged them, you wouldn’t have the same brain. It’s analogous to a simple kitchen recipe. Traditional reductionist science has looked just at the ingredients, not how and when they interact.”

Now a lead investigator on a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Hugenschmidt was able to be competitive for the current award because of a modest grant from the American Federation for Aging Research, along with a gift from David Gore, founder of Gore-Tex. She says that gift was profoundly helpful and paved the way for the NIH grant by allowing her to demonstrate how she could get the important data.

Laurienti, who holds an undergraduate degree in psychology and earned a PhD in neuroscience by studying electrical currents in the neurological cells of slugs, sees network science as a new approach for a new era.

“Reductionist science was good for the problems we faced last century,” Laurienti says. “We have new problems now.”

This article and video were produced by the Office of Development and Alumni Affairs for Engage, a magazine published for donors and friends of Wake Forest Baptist.

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