A University task force is charged with exploring how to bring Penn to the forefront of an emerging discipline. What is the basis for who we are and how we act? What is awareness, and why are we aware? What is knowledge? For thousands of years, these questions have baffled philosophers and scientists alike. And only recently have researchers in the many disciplines interested in these issues -- including psychology, neurology and biology -- attempted to merge their studies into one distinct field: the mechanisms underlying higher brain functions. It is called cognitive neuroscience, and a new University task force is "exploring how Penn can distinguish itself in this area," according to University President Judith Rodin. Rodin, a noted psychologist, established the 10-member committee -- which is part of the Agenda for Excellence, her five-year campus master plan released in late 1995 -- earlier this year with Interim Provost Michael Wachter. Cognitive neuroscience is the study of how the brain processes information, develops awareness, makes choices and understands itself and its environment, explained committee chairperson Robert Barchi. Barchi, a Neuroscience and Neurology professor in the School of Medicine, said this is "one of the fastest-moving and most-exciting parts of neuroscience," and will be one of the main areas of scientific and medical research in the next 10 years. He added that cognitive neuroscientists utilize a combination of neurology, psychology, neuroscience and computer science and engineering to attempt to answer "fundamental questions that academicians have been dealing with since Socrates." Most of these questions focus on the mechanisms for things like attention, memory, humor, consciousness, reasoning and language. While psychologists may consider more theoretical responses, Bioengineering Professor Leif Finkel is working on the tangible side. "People have asked the same questions for 2,000 years," he said. "It's just the field that changes." Finkel explained that bioengineering's role in cognitive neuroscience -- which he called "a modern-day incarnation of philosophy" -- is to develop imaging techniques and make computer simulations of the brain. One imaging technique that is widely used in the field is functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. It is based on the fact that when a part of the brain is being used, more blood flows to that spot because it needs more oxygen to function. The technique gives a direct measure of the amount of activity in each part of the brain, so when a person is speaking for example, the language center lights up on the screen. These tests can be used to understand how the brain functions on a purely theoretical level, but more importantly, they help physicians understand diseases of the brain and their treatment. Also, studies of how the brain functions when it is not perfect -- like in Alzheimer's patients or stroke victims -- provide information about normal brain function, said Psychology Professor Martha Farah, a committee member. "The way in which a system breaks down is direct information about how it normally is structured," she said. Farah explained the difference between cognitive neuroscience and regular psychology, saying that in the past, psychologists had to indirectly infer the underlying organization of mental ability from measurements of laboratory tests. Now, she said, the new integration of fields allows direct measurement of mental processing. Finding a means for this unification is exactly what the task force is trying to do. Task force member Mark D'Esposito, a Neurology professor, said the group would like to form a center that will "unify the discipline by bringing together a core number of people regardless of what department they are in." The center will encompass research in brain function, act as a base for both Biological Basis of Behavior majors and graduate students in cognitive neuroscience and link people in other departments who are also interested in the field, he said. BBB majors like College junior Debra Kobrin, who study the overlap of biology and psychology, said they think this kind of arrangement would be helpful to the major. Kobrin said it would be "exciting" to "put everything that has to do with the brain in the University in one place." D'Esposito said Penn has strengths in all of cognitive neuroscience's areas -- psychology, neurology, engineering and cognitive science, to name a few -- which puts the University in a good position to develop an interdisciplinary program like this. "There isn't one place in the country that's a mecca for cognitive neuroscience," he said. "We're in a good position to pull it off."
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