Menu

Spirit Archives

Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

View the full magazine archive

Feature Stories

Ask Professor X

The Brainiac

Subject:
Dr. Steve Maren
Claude H. Everett ’47 Jr. Chair of Liberal Arts
University Distinguished Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences 

Education: Ph.D. Biological Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles (1993); M.S. Biological Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles (1991); B.A. Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1989).

Research interests: The neural mechanisms underlying emotional learning and memory in animals, and the relevance of these mechanisms to clinical disorders of fear and anxiety, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in humans.

Tell us about Texas A&M’s new brain science initiative.

"In a nutshell, it’s a campus initiative built to explore the mysteries of the brain. We’re increasing research activities in neuroscience in animals and humans, and the initiative has resulted in faculty hires in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences (formerly the psychology department). We research things such as post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and compulsive behaviors."

Illustration of the brain

What sets Texas A&M apart in brain science research?

"The Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience is strongly collaborative among several of the major units on campus, including the veterinary school and the colleges of medicine, engineering, liberal arts and science. We have strong animal research and human research sitting side-by-side, which makes us well-positioned to tackle issues of brain function across many levels of analysis."

What happens to the brain when someone experiences trauma?

"Traumatic experiences cause a host of changes in the brain, some of which persist for hours, and others that persist for months or even years. Long-lasting changes include hyperactivity in the amygdala—an area of the brain involved in emotions, such as fear—and decreases in the activity of the prefrontal cortex—an area involved with emotional regulation."
 

What does therapy look like for someone with PTSD?

"Current therapies for anxiety disorders and PTSD focus on learning that cues associated with the trauma are no longer fear-provoking. Patients often undergo exposure therapy to reduce their fear of situations and stimuli associated with trauma. Although exposure therapy is often effective, pathological fear and anxiety are known to return or relapse under many circumstances. This occurs, for example, when trauma-related stimuli, which have come to be tolerated during therapy, are unexpectedly experienced outside of the clinical context. Relapse of fear after therapy has been estimated to occur in upwards of two-thirds of patients who undergo exposure therapy."

But your research could help clinicians better treat disorders like PTSD.

"Yes, that’s the hope. PTSD is a major debilitating disorder that affects an increasing number of people in the U.S. With depression, obsessive compulsive disorder or other mental illnesses, you don’t really know when the disorder begins. With PTSD, however, you have a moment in time where there’s a particularly traumatic event. Because we know when PTSD starts, we can model that traumatic experience very effectively in the lab using basic learning and memory procedures.

My research involves studying the relationship between three parts of the brain: the hippocampus, (which is involved in memory), the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. While the neurocircuit between the three has long been known to process fear, my studies have pinpointed connections between the hippocampus and a specific type of cell in the prefrontal cortex that is involved in a relapse of fear. This has widespread implications for treating fear disorders like PTSD in the future, as we now know what part of the brain to target."

Support Brain Science 

“Whether it’s mental health, mental illness, or neurological disorders and neurodegeneration, brain disorders touch almost everyone,” said Maren. “Even if you’re not personally afflicted, you likely have a family member or friend who is.”

Texas A&M’s Brain Science Initiative brings together faculty and student researchers to see the brain in action, offering a more thorough understanding of how people think, feel and interact. Trained in cutting-edge techniques for neuroimaging and psychophysiological measurements, researchers from colleges across Texas A&M seek answers to everything from obsessive-compulsive disorder to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Gifts to the Brain Science Initiative can pay for expensive imaging equipment and provide the personnel needed to lay the groundwork for federal funding of brain science research.

Contact Larry Walker '97 (below) if you're interested in supporting brain science research at Texas A&M.

Because Texas A&M doesn’t yet have a neuroscience undergraduate major, an important part of the Brain Science Initiative involves making this field more accessible to undergraduates. A major push to develop the major—which involves the Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience, the Texas A&M Health Science Center, and the colleges of liberal arts, science and veterinary medicine—is underway.

Because the brain doesn’t have pain receptors, there is no sense of pain within the brain itself. This explains why brain surgeons can probe areas of the brain even when patients are awake.

Housing memories involves multiple areas of the brain. While the hippocampus and cortex store information about the time and place of an event, the amygdala is critical for the memory’s emotional aspects.

Although it might seem to take a lot of brains to be in Maren’s line of work, human brain size has little to do with actual intelligence. But brain size does matter when comparing species: Among mammals, humans have the biggest brain by body weight, averaging three to four pounds.

The brain is composed of 100 billion neurons, the same number of stars in our galaxy. Counting at a rate of one neuron per second, it would take nearly 3,200 years to count them all!

Contact:

Larry Walker '97

Senior Director of Development
College of Liberal Arts