The Pitt-Carnegie Mellon partnership is unique in the nation
A Pitt sophomore wakes up, hops down from the top bunk, and prepares for her 8 a.m. class. As she stands by her bedroom dresser, a chilling weakness seeps into her body. Blackness envelops her, her legs collapse, and on her way to the floor, her head thumps against the dresser. She regains consciousness with a concussion.
Two weeks later, the student falls again, jogging her head. Within her brain, a damaged artery balloons dangerously, inflated by blood pressure.
The fainting happens repeatedly. She forgets how to read. She has wild mood swings. Uncharacteristically, she begins drinking heavily and sleeps for hours straight. She tries disguising her increasingly bizarre behavior, but she can’t control her impulses. As time progresses, the student’s life churns into a hopeless muddle, memories permanently lost.
Her doctors first treat her for bipolar disorder, with no results. Then they discover the enlarged artery—or aneurysm—in her frontal lobe, a region of the brain that controls emotions and impulses. The aneurysm explains why she is so erratic emotionally, but it doesn’t explain why she totters around like a two-year-old. Why would damage to the frontal lobe impair motor functions?
For years, neuroscientists looked at the brain as if it were divided into separate centers with distinct functions—motor, sensory, or cognitive. Deep brain structures like the cerebellum and basal ganglia, which are primarily involved with movement, were thought to be independent from cognitive operations handled by the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex.
As a young scientist, neurobiologist Peter Strick studied the brain’s anatomy and physiology. Motor control interested him, and he soon realized that it provided a window into other aspects of brain function. In the early 1990s, he developed a technique of using viral tracers to look at connections in the brain, specifically targeting how the cerebellum and basal ganglia interact with the cerebral cortex.
Eventually, he discovered that the brain wasn’t divided into distinct regions—it had no absolute partitions at all, in terms of function. The cerebellum and basal ganglia were not only involved with movement, but also with memory, decision-making, and planning. This discovery, among others, made Strick one of the preeminent neuroscientists in the nation.
Strick conducted most of this research at the State University of New York Health Science Center at Syracuse—his professional home for 25 years. He probably would have stayed there, but Arthur S. Levine, Pitt's dean of the School of Medicine and senior vice chancellor for the health sciences, contacted Strick about codirecting the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC), a joint venture between Pitt and neighboring Carnegie Mellon University.
Once Strick arrived in Pittsburgh for his interview, it wasn’t hard for Levine to convince him that Pitt and the center could enrich his research efforts. Strick realized that what he knew about the brain held true for CNBC—there were no boundaries. “The center seamlessly crosses the boundary between Pitt and Carnegie Mellon,” Strick says. “It also seamlessly crosses disciplines and the lines of basic and clinical sciences.”
Strick, now a Pitt professor of neurobiology, psychiatry, and neurological surgery, pursues his work across academic and scientific spectrums with a wide range of scientists at both Pitt and Carnegie Mellon. The collaboration parallels his research—he recently published a paper in Nature Neuroscience revealing evidence that the cerebellum “talks” to the basal ganglia.
He says that because CNBC is a unique partnership between two of the nation’s leading research universities, it attracts some of the country’s best thinkers. When he was recruiting groundbreaking neuroscience researcher Andrew Schwartz (“Mind Control,” Fall 2005, Pitt Magazine), people told him, You’ll never lure Schwartz from San Diego to Pittsburgh. Yet Strick did, and he knows it was due to the center’s special appeal and the joint support from the administrations of both universities. He credits Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon for their commitment to research, enabling the center to conduct cutting-edge studies.
“A lot of institutions get mired in understanding the brain from one perspective. They say, ‘If you’re not looking at genes, you’re wasting your time,’” says Strick, who also is a senior research career scientist with the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Health System. “The way you get insight about the brain is through multiple levels of analysis and a multidisciplinary approach.”
The Pitt-Carnegie Mellon partnership has roots in the administrations of Pitt President Wesley Posvar and Carnegie Mellon President Richard Cyert during the 1980s. The two leaders established partnerships like the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) and CNBC, and the relationship between the universities really began to thrive under Nordenberg and Cohon. In less than a decade, a number of new programs flourished between the two institutions, including The Technology Collaborative and the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse.
In 2002, Pittsburgh Magazine named Nordenberg and Cohon its 2001 “Pittsburghers of the Year.” The magazine honored these leaders for strengthening their respective institutions and bonding across the Craig Street divide.
Nordenberg and Cohon began their partnership in 1997, before Cohon started his presidency at Carnegie Mellon. The two met at the National Science Foundation (NSF) office in Washington, D.C. The NSF had cut off funding for some of its supercomputing centers, including the PSC. Nordenberg and Cohon sought transitional funding and lobbied for the region's strengths as a supercomputing center. The effort paid off when the NSF named the PSC as a funded site for a terascale computer—the world's fastest—drawing scientists from around the globe. Now, the PSC is stronger than ever. The NSF followed up a $45 million grant to the PSC in 2000 with another five-year grant in 2005, this time for $52 million.
These days, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon researchers and professors partner regularly (see sidebar). This past fall, the universities received a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—one of only 10 awarded nationwide—to support an interdisciplinary joint doctoral program in computational biology established in 2004. These partnerships not only benefit the universities, but also enhance southwestern Pennsylvania, providing jobs and attracting research and business.
Peter Strick now works to determine the full extent and nature of cerebellum-basal ganglia interactions. What Strick and other CNBC researchers from Pitt and Carnegie Mellon are discovering has already helped doctors treat patients like the Pitt sophomore who suddenly began to lose her mind. After trying multiple treatments, doctors finally realized what neuroscientists like Strick knew—that damage to the frontal lobe could cause the other areas of the brain to malfunction as well. They designed a joint program of cognitive therapy and medication to deal with all of the symptoms, including the poor motor control. The student—now a Pitt alumna—has since been weaned off her treatments and is attending nursing school in Los Angeles.
Chalk up another success to combined effort. —Meghan Holohan
Breakthroughs in the Making
A sampling of shared Pitt-Carnegie Mellon ventures
Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition
Multifaceted center studies the complex links between neural physiology and human cognition
Immune Modeling Center
Designs mathematical models to help researchers explore immune system reactions, aiding disease management and drug development
Medical Scientist Training Program
Allows students to earn MD and PhD degrees simultaneously in Pitt’s School of Medicine and in Pitt or Carnegie Mellon science/engineering programs
Mellon Pitt Carnegie Corporation
Fosters economic development and technology transfer, particularly in engineering and the sciences
Pitt-Carnegie Mellon Philosophy Partnership
Encourages collaborations among faculty in ways that influence philosophical thought internationally
Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse
Public/private partnership supports the growth of regional life sciences companies in bioinformatics, bionanotechnology, diagnostics, medical devices, medical robotics, and therapeutics
Pittsburgh Mind-Body Center
Seeks to understand mind-body interactions in health, especially
how the mind influences disease development and recovery
Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center
Conducts research and provides resources to ensure robust learning that is durable and transferable and accelerates future learning
Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center
A venture with Westinghouse Electric Co. gives researchers access
to the world’s fastest computers for complex scientific exploration
Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative
Improves health through advances in tissue-related medical
therapies via research, education, and commercial development
The Technology Collaborative
Attracts high-tech business and research to the region,
particularly in electronics, cybersecurity, and robotics