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Workshop on Vision/Brain Research Draws Journalists to Institute

The Salk Institute's Communications department hosted a science writers' workshop that drew a dozen San Diego-area staff and freelance journalists to hear the latest research on vision and the brain in April.

The event, designed as a networking opportunity with journalists, featured a lively roundtable session and talks by three of Salk's leading investigators (and one from UCSD) who discussed their respective areas of science, which represent some of the work that has led San Diego to emerge as a major hotbed for vision research in the last decade.

Providing a broad overview of studies and discoveries over the last 50 years, Thomas Albright, professor and director of Salk's Vision Center Laboratory, explained the various stages of visual processes and the biology behind the visual system, which neuroscientists like him are using as a tool to ultimately understand the brain.

"The treatment of vision-related diseases depends on understanding brain structure and function," he said. "It's like fixing your car. If you don't understand how the car is put together, there's no chance you're going to be able to fix it. The same is true with the brain. If we want to be able to fix the brain when it breaks, we have to understand how it's put together."

One way to understand the brain is to tease apart its circuitry, which was the focus of Edward Callaway's presentation. A professor in the Systems Neurobiology Laboratory, he explained the novel technique he developed using a modified rabies virus to identify the connections to single neurons. This discovery is the first step toward developing a wiring diagram of the brain to eventually treat disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and Parkinson's disease.

UCSD professor of Psychology Karen Dobkins focused her presentation on her studies of autism, and offered several hypotheses in her field, including one that suggests that the developmental disorder, which affects one in 150 children, could be associated problems in the visual system.

She explained that autistic children have deficiencies in their ability to remember faces and detect motion, sensory functions that are processed in the primary visual cortex. This area of the brain is also responsible for sending signals to the frontal lobes that are involved in cognitive and behavioral functions. Social behavior and communication deficits, it turns out, are among the hallmarks of autism.

"This might sound like a stretch, but we are playing with the idea that autism might possibly originate with a problem in sensory processing," Dobkins says. "In other words, before I can act appropriately to my world, I have to perceive my world appropriately."

The workshop culminated with an overview of the building block of the visual system by E. J. Chichilnisky, whose goal is to learn the mechanics behind the retina in sufficient detail to replicate its activity so that his lab can one day be able to contribute to a visual prosthetic that could help the blind to see.

Comparing the retina's computational capacity to a 1-megapixel digital camera, Chichilnisky described how the various cells in the retinal tissue gather incoming information through the eye before sending it via nerve fibers to the brain where the signals are developed into a visual representation of what is being perceived.

His lab is able to record this activity, he said, using specially designed electrode electronics that can take several hundreds of readings from retinal cells simultaneously. By learning to interpret and replicate these signals, Chichilnisky said a prosthetic device is possible in the future.

"I thought there was a good mix of basic information and specific research applications," said Lynne Friedman, editor of ScienceWriters, a publication of the National Association of Science Writers. "Equally important was how the speakers described the unanswered questions in the field, which will help writers evaluate future journal articles on the topic."