PLASTIC BRAINS IN A PLASTIC SOCIETY: SCIENTIFIC AND SOCIAL CONCEPTS OF NEURONAL PLASTICITY
Beatrix Rubin, Collegium Helveticum, UZH/ETH Zurich
The analysis of a paradigm shift in the research on adult neurogenesis.
In the recent past, there has been an ever-increasing recognition of the plasticity of the adult mammalian brain. The extent to which brain circuitry might be modified by experience and the quality of these changes is an area of intense research activity in neurobiology. In this project, the investigations on the de novo generation of neurons (neurogenesis) have been chosen amongst other areas of research as an instructive example to study the changes in the understanding of brain plasticity.
Based on a series of interviews with experts in neurobiological research and a complementary survey of the scientific literature, it will be investigated in which ways the occurrences of neurogenesis in the mature brain -after either being neglected or even overtly rejected for almost a century -have been gaining validity. This analysis should help to explain how the long cherished assumption of cellular immutability has been abolished in favour of a much more dynamic understanding of the mature mammalian brain. More specifically, this study will explore if and in which ways the changed understanding of brain plasticity amounts to a paradigm shift in neurobiological research. (Gross, C., G. (2000) Neurogenesis in the adult brain: death of a dogma. Nat Rev Neurosci. Oct;1(1):67-73.)
Importantly, neurobiological research is not regarded as an isolated activity. In contrast, the project aims to situate the altered scientific understanding of the mammalian brain in a broader societal context. Therefore the conditions, which might have favoured a changed scientific understanding of the brain will be integrated into the analysis. The focus will be twofold: On one hand it will be investigated how the new demands imposed on society for economic competitiveness and with it on the individual for biographical flexibility and life long learning are creating ever new hopes and expectations directed at neurobiological research. On the other hand, it will be analysed in which way the altered perceptions of brain plasticity in respect to cellular renewal are altering the understanding on human nature both in health and disease. This part of the project will be performed in collaboration with Professor Maasen (University of Basel) and Professor Lessenich (University of Jena).
In summary, this project aims to analyse to which extent the brain, as the organ considered increasingly central to success in today’s society, is not only understood as, but also required to be plastic.