Princeton Neuroscience Institute the Interdisciplinary PNI Takes a New Approach to Studying the Brain and Behavior

Princeton Neuroscience Institute (Photo by Michael Moran/OTTO)

By Wendy Greenberg

It may seem to some that the Princeton Neuroscience Institute has always been part of the Washington Road landscape, nestled between Roberts Stadium and South Drive. But there was a time, only about 10 years ago, when the site of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute (PNI) and Peretsman-Scully Hall, which houses the Princeton University Psychology Department, was a parking lot. 

Not only have the buildings become part of the landscape, but during the last several years the PNI has become renowned for its collaborative research and the work of its three specific centers: the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics, the McDonnell Center for Systems Neuroscience, and the Scully Center for the Neuroscience of Mind and Behavior.

The institute was the brainchild of two professors who are now its co-directors, Jonathan Cohen — professor of psychology and Robert Bendheim and Lynn Bendheim Thoman Professor in Neuroscience; and David Tank — Henry L. Hillman Professor in Molecular Biology, who also has a joint appointment in physics. It had the support of then-Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and the board of trustees.

PNI was introduced in a 2005 Princeton Weekly Bulletin article, describing neuroscience as the “next field ripe for scientific breakthroughs,” and promising to take a “new approach to studying the brain and nervous system.” Tilghman had said that “we’re seeing path-breaking results already in this field that are changing the way we understand the human brain and human decision-making.”

By all accounts, that vision for PNI is a reality. Today, one of the institute’s distinguishing features, the directors noted, is that it is open to undergraduates for hands-on research. Among other distinctions, it is one of the few places where undergraduates can do brain imaging and a range of research.

For example, in Professor Ilana Witten’s lab, many undergraduates take part in research on how brain cells communicate to enable learning, memory, and socialization — research that has implications for a range of disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, autism, learning disabilities, and addiction. With funding through the Bezos Center, Witten is studying how to control brain activity by shifting light, called optogenetics.

David Tank (Photo by Princeton University, Office of Communications)

Field in a Renaissance

Institute planning stemmed from interest in neuroscience as a burgeoning field in the early 2000s. “During the early turn of this century, neuroscience saw a renaissance,” said Tank. “At the time, “Princeton did not have a strong representation,” he said, except for some highly regarded senior faculty, particularly in psychology and molecular biology, who became affiliated with the neuroscience program.

During the planning, nearly 20 years ago, the faculty was spread over the campus. “The goal was to bring us together under one roof, and create a synergy,” Tank said.

Tank, a member of the molecular biology and physics faculty, came from Bell Labs and holds a Ph.D. from Cornell and bachelor’s degree from Case Western Reserve. He develops and applies physics-based measurement techniques to study dynamic aspects of the nervous system. He is currently researching a form of neural activity important in short-term memory.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon, Cohen’s background is in cognitive neuroscience. His research focuses on neurobiological mechanisms underlying cognitive control, and their disturbance in psychiatric disorders using behavioral and brain imaging methods with computational modeling.

Some of the impetus for PNI came from the students themselves. During the early planning, “there was an incredible amount of interest among students asking about neuroscience,” said Tank.  No modern university can be first class without a world-recognized neuroscience department for research and for teaching.”

Shared Spaces for Collaborative Work

For the building, the University hired architect Jose Rafael Moneo of Madrid, a former chair of the Department of Architecture at Harvard, who has also taught at Princeton. Davis Brody Bond LLP and Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates oversaw the execution of the project and landscape.

The building, which was ready for occupancy in December 2013, covers 248,000 square feet and meets the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver standards.

With the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Institute connected by shared space, the other buildings nearby have formed a sort of academic science neighborhood, which includes the chemistry building on the east side of Washington Road, and the Icahn labs on the west side.

Bathed in natural light, the first and second floors of the neuroscience side of the complex house faculty offices and study spaces, with laboratories in the center.  The non-connecting walls of the two structures are composed of glass with a three-foot-wide airspace between them. The outer facade is a ribbed “glass curtain” that serves as a sunscreen, and the inner layer is a weather barrier of high-performance glass, according to the University.

The lower floor features a common space and a 140-seat lecture hall, shared with the psychology building. (The website explains that imaging and microscopy areas must be in contact with the ground due to vibrations and electromagnetic field restrictions, and are located on the lowest level.) Two stories are above ground, and two are below, while the Peretsman-Scully psychology building has five levels above ground and two below.

PNI is distinguished by its focus on connecting theory and experimentation, with a strong teaching mission. It emphasizes an understanding of the principles of function and interaction that apply across the brain, and an understanding of neural coding and dynamics.

“We shared the sense that to be a mature science, we had to work in complex data,” said Cohen, recalling the original mission.

Donors Support Three Centers

The intellectually-progressive neuroscience space has excited donors. Three gifts have especially supported new centers.

The Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics, led by Tank, was created by a $15 million gift from Jeff ’86 and MacKenzie ’92 Bezos. At the Bezos Center, Princeton researchers work toward an understanding of patterns of nerve cell electrical and chemical activity in which information is created, manipulated, and stored. The focus of the Bezos Center is the development and application of microscopy imaging techniques for measuring neural circuit dynamics in the functioning brain.

The Regina and John Scully ’66 Center for the Neuroscience of Mind and Behavior explores how the physical mechanisms of the brain give rise to the functions of the mind, enhancing the understanding of learning, decision-making, and other behaviors.

Brothers James S. McDonnell III ’58 and John F. McDonnell ’60 joined with the JSM Charitable Trust to make a $30 million gift to establish the McDonnell Center for Systems Neuroscience.

Additionally, a $20 million gift from Nancy Peretsman ’76 and Robert Scully ’72 named the psychology building. 

Princeton Neuroscience Institute (Photo by Princeton University, Office of Communications)

Today’s Vibrant Research

Today, Princeton, a university that does not emphasize professional schools like medical school or law school, is considered a leader in neuroscience with a vibrant research program, according to the directors.

More collaborative work is being done, especially with the departments of engineering and computer science. And the goal of the Rutgers-Princeton Center for Computational Cognitive Neuro-Psychiatry is to leverage the expertise in Princeton’s Department of Psychology and the Neuroscience Institute, Rutgers’ Departments of Psychology, Psychiatry, and Computer Science; Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care; Robert Wood Johnson Hospital; and the Rutgers Brain Health Institute in a major collaborative initiative.

PNI and Intel Labs are working together to break new ground in the study of the brain and reading the human mind, using a system that focuses on human mapping.

One of the markers of success is the level of outside funding, notes Cohen. In that area, PNI is the recipient of grants from prestigious foundations, including National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Templeton Foundation, Impact, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“It’s a pretty amazing portfolio,” said Cohen. For example, just this past fall Princeton announced that four University projects are among 121 selected by the National Institutes of Health to receive an overall $219 million in funds related to the federal Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative.

A $15.4 million grant funds the next five years of ongoing investigations into short-term “working” memory using the latest techniques including virtual reality, automated behavioral training, cellular-resolution imaging in rodents, manipulation of neural activity in specific brain areas and cell types, and automated anatomical reconstruction. Tank is among several professors leading that research.

Even though the building is not at capacity yet, PNI, in just four years, is at the forefront of development in data analysis, neural modeling, images and perturbing kinetochore, the living brain, and a world leader in algorithm software packages used worldwide.