October 14, 2008

Salk Researcher Terry Sejnowski Elected to Institute of Medicine

Salk News

Salk Researcher Terry Sejnowski Elected to Institute of Medicine

La Jolla, CA – Terry Sejnowski, Ph.D., professor and head of the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute has been elected to the Institute of Medicine, the IOM has announced. Election to the IOM is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service.

“It is a great pleasure to welcome these distinguished and influential individuals to the Institute of Medicine,” said IOM President Harvey V. Fineberg. “Members are elected through a highly selective process that recognizes people who have made major contributions to the advancement of the medical sciences, health care, and public health.”

A Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, Dr. Sejnowski’s lab is interested in understanding how the brain represents the world with information stored in neurons that are distributed across the brain and how new representations are formed through learning algorithms, which are rules for changing the strengths of connections between neurons.

He has created computer models of networks of neurons to explore the mechanisms underlying attention in the awake brain and brain rhythms in the sleeping brain and the links between them. These models also help explain how epilepsy arises from imbalances in brain circuits.

Sejnowski’s laboratory has developed new ways of analyzing the sources of electrical and magnetic signals recorded from the scalp and the signals picked up by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain that are used routinely by laboratories throughout the world to study normal and abnormal brain function.

Among other things, Dr. Sejnowski is interested in the hippocampus, believed to play a major role in learning and memory, and the cerebral cortex, which holds our knowledge of the world and how to interact with it. In his lab, Sejnowski’s team uses sophisticated electrical and chemical monitoring techniques to measure changes that occur in the connections among nerve cells in the hippocampus during a simple form of learning. They use the results of these studies to instruct large-scale computers to mimic how these nerve cells work.

By studying how the resulting computer simulations can perform operations that resemble the activities of the hippocampus, Dr. Sejnowski hopes to gain new knowledge of how the human brain is capable of learning and storing memories. This knowledge ultimately may provide medical specialists with critical clues to combating Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders that rob people of the critical ability to remember faces, names, places and events.

Sejnowski is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has received many honors, including the Wright Prize for interdisciplinary research from Harvey Mudd College, the Hebb Prize and the Neural Network Pioneer Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has published over 300 scientific papers and 12 books, including The Computational Brain, with UC San Diego professor of philosophy, Patricia Churchland.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to fundamental discoveries in the life sciences, the improvement of human health and the training of future generations of researchers. Jonas Salk, M.D., whose polio vaccine all but eradicated the crippling disease poliomyelitis in 1955, founded the Institute in 1960 with a gift of land from the City of San Diego and the financial support of the March of Dimes.

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