Research on brain functions that humans never recognize has earned a School of Medicine professor significant attention.
Neurobiology professor David McCormick was awarded the Senator Jacob Javits Award by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for studying the function of the cerebral cortex. Along with national recognition, he was given funds for both the current and subsequent grant cycles, totaling eight years of National Institutes of Health funding.
McCormick investigates the underpinnings of rapid brain functions that the average human does without even thinking about. This includes a person’s ability to hear two voices at once in a restaurant or move his or her eyes while driving. He said these actions are rapidly processed by the neurons in the cerebral cortex.
The cerebral cortex is a sheet about the size of a small pizza, as McCormick describes it, and is approximately two millimeters thick. In that minute space, however, about ten billion neurons reside. All neurons are connected to each other, forming a massive network.
McCormick’s research attempts to explain how this network allows information to flow in and out and how it allows for speedy information processing, such as recognizing a voice.
“These neurons allow for a person to have any kind of thoughts, to develop any sort of biases, to put any idea or thought into context, to pay attention to some things, and it all happens very rapidly,” McCormick said. “There must be some control over this flow of ideas. Otherwise, if there were not any control, people would just be having epileptic seizures all the time.”
Aside from his research team, McCormick said there has not been much investigation of this sort of information processing in the cerebral cortex.
McCormick also researches ionic current, the specific mechanism neurons use to communicate with other cells in their network.
McCormick said his research is conducted in both cell cultures and various animals, including mice and rats.
The Javits Award presents opportunity as well as prestige to the McCormick laboratory.
“It is really fantastic that way we are getting funded for such a long time,” Andrea Hasenstaub GRD ’05, a graduate student working with McCormick, said. “This allows for longer, constant and, particularly, more ambitious projects in the future. Otherwise, you have to show [NIH] publishable results every two or three years.”
Another graduate student in McCormick’s lab said the research is at the forefront of neuroscience.
“It’s exciting to really be figuring out what the circuits of the brain are doing and then to unravel this circuitry and try to understand how thoughts can flow from cell to cell in such a rapid manner,” Bilal Haider GRD ’08 said.
While McCormick’s professional colleagues are some of the top minds in the field, he does his own part to create more widespread knowledge of the brain’s functions, occasionally visiting elementary school children to show them a human brain.