Research News & Updates
At NYU School of Medicine, our researchers have a long history of pioneering medicine, making breakthrough biomedical discoveries that change the way we look at healthcare. More than just enhancing personalized medicine and exploring innovative treatments, we collaborate across academic disciplines to advance multiple fields.
Each year, our research report highlights the groundbreaking discoveries made by our faculty.
György Buzsáki, MD, PhD, Recently Elected to National Academy of Sciences
On Tuesday, May 2, György Buzsáki, MD, PhD, learned about his election to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the nation’s greatest research honors, from a colleague’s congratulatory email. Dr. Buzsáki, the Biggs Professor of Neuroscience at NYU School of Medicine’s Neuroscience Institute and Department of Neuroscience and Physiology, hadn’t been able to check his voicemail, and only then spoke with a member of the academy’s election committee, who confirmed the news. “The election process is slow, and it’s nice that your colleagues stand up for you and invite you to ‘join the club,’ ” Dr. Buzsáki says.
The prestigious honor, recognizing a career of consistent academic contribution, was given to Dr. Buzsáki, who is best known for his groundbreaking two-stage model for memory trace formation. The model, which he laid out in a seminal 1989 Neuroscience paper, depicts the role of a hippocampal activity pattern, the “hippocampal sharp wave ripple,” in compressing and transferring information learned during waking hours to the neocortex for long-term storage during sleep.
Dr. Buzsáki’s research has demonstrated that remembering single occurrences, known as episodic memory, is facilitated by the repetition of compressed events thousands of times a night. This process is “hijacked” in epilepsy, Dr. Buzsáki says, resulting in memory decline. “In fact, antiepileptic drugs are now being tested on patients with Alzheimer’s disease, with the hopes of blunting memory deterioration.”
A Different Approach to the Study of Neuroscience
Dr. Buzsáki, author of the book Rhythms of the Brain, has taken an unorthodox approach to the study of neuroscience. Traditionally, the field has examined how the brain perceives the world and responds to it. Dating back to William James’s 1890 book, The Principles of Psychology, this approach attempts to assign functions, such as motivation and perception, to regions of the brain. “The problem with an ‘outside-in’ methodology,” Dr. Buzsáki argues, “is that it uses naïve labels that don’t actually correspond to anything mechanistic.”
An example of how such blanket labeling can mask true function comes from Dr. Buzsáki’s work on the hippocampus. This region of the brain, long known to be involved in planning and memory, was also found to control spatial navigation, a seemingly discordant function. Dr. Buzsáki was intrigued by the fact that ablation of this “GPS” component in patients with epilepsy can leave them unable to recall the timing and location of past events. Dr. Buzsáki and his team hypothesized that memory may be the product of “mental travel” (adapting the term from Endel Tulving), in which the mind visits places not only in space but also in time.
“Of course, good theories have solid predictions,” he said. Indeed, Dr. Buzsáki and his team were able to provide evidence for such a spatiotemporal connection in a 2008 Science paper. The study showed that rats trained to follow a motion pattern had continuously changing hippocampal activity, even when they were spatially confined but had to keep the route in mind. The discovery of such firing sequences, which were absent in confined animals that were not completing a memory task, confirmed a role for hippocampal processing of information that would later determine action.
The Buzsáki Lab has also been studying the process by which the brain starts watching its own computation. “The main goal of the brain is to predict the future based on past experience,” he explains. “Cognition is when the brain evaluates likely outcomes without actually acting out different scenarios.”
In order to help us navigate unfamiliar surroundings, the hippocampus requires the ability to learn new things, but also relies on a set of rules that have been shaped by prior knowledge. In a 2016 Science paper, Dr. Buzsáki’s team showed that some neurons in the hippocampus do in fact make generalizations. This “makes no new room we enter completely new,” as Dr. Buzsáki puts it.
A Need for Freedom to Explore Scientific Questions
Dr. Buzsáki recalls that funding for his work in the early days of his career was inconsistent. And so, like many scientists, he found it difficult to focus on his research questions without being swept away by the “funding tide.” Still, he stayed the course and advises others to do the same.
“Getting money is much easier than doing good science. And if you do good science, the money will follow,” Dr. Buzsáki says. “We talk a lot about translational science without being responsible enough.” He encourages scientists to not oversell the significance of their findings; to be bold but also to change direction when they hit a wall, regardless of how well funded the field might be.
“As scientists, we need to have the freedom to explore the questions that are within our reach to answer. If you take away this freedom,” he warns, “science simply stops.”
Dr. Buzsáki joins 11 other NYU School of Medicine faculty members who have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences for their distinguished achievement in the biomedical sciences. “It’s a great personal honor,” he says, “and also an important one for the institute.”
Dr. Buzsáki is also an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Spotlight on Science
Our enewsletter, Spotlight on Science, features a sampling of the latest accomplishments in research at NYU Langone. It is the accumulation of day-to-day breakthroughs by which we lead the way to truly monumental findings. Sign up to receive future issues, and read previous issues.