Today a world-renowned neuroscientist, Pasko Rakic., M.D., Ph.D., spoke at the UC Davis Buehler Alumni Center on the “Development and Evolution of the Cerebral Cortex.” His talk marked the First Annual E. G. (Ted) Jones History of Neuroscience Lecture.
Earlier in the day, students met with him for lunch, during which he shared his perspective on topics such as his successful career trajectory, the Brain Activity Map project, and possible reasons for the slowing pace of drug discovery. His easy sense of humor kept the mood light even while discussing more serious topics.
One of the main points of Rakic’s lecture is that although animal models such as rodents can offer exceptional insight into how our brains develop (“I wrote a book on it!”), we must understand that the conclusions we can extrapolate into humans are limited. During lunch he illustrated this idea, explaining that if you want to understand how birds fly, you don’t study the mouse, because the mouse doesn’t fly. Similarly, if we want to understand prefrontal cortex function in humans, we can’t study the mouse, because the mouse doesn’t have prefrontal cortex. “We are so excited about the similarities that we neglect the differences.” Highlighting the fact that molecules sometimes play different roles from one species to the next, he shared his surprise when learning that NEDD, which is involved in human cortical development, stood for “Not Expressed During Development” in Drosophila.
Rakic also addressed the seemingly age-old Genes vs. Environment (Nature vs. Nuture) controversy, which he exemplified in a debate he had with Colin Blakemore. Each debater began by siding with either genes or environment, believing that only one mattered in development. After two hours and several glasses of wine, they came to an agreement — they were asking the wrong question! Instead of debating whether genes or environment mattered, they should have been asking “Which is primary and which is secondary?” This thoughtful interpretation of the issue is sure to become more prominent as we learn more about epigenetics, risk factors, and environmental triggers.
Finally, Rakic was not ashamed to poke fun at himself. While displaying a list of some of his lab’s publications, he noted, “They are in good journals; that means they are true!” A double lesson in modesty and the importance of judging science by its quality and reproducibility, and not just by the title.