In third grade Christopher Moore revealed his desire to be published in the field of neuroscience. He set out to create an A-Z book of facts about the brain.
“I think I got to B,” he admits. “I didn’t make it very far, but I remember drawing a picture of the brain on the cover.”
Ultimately he followed through on his ambitions by finishing a doctoral dissertation at MIT in 1998 and then joining the faculty there in 2003. This summer, drawn by Brown’s balance of research and teaching, he came to Providence to continue his investigation into the body’s most complex organ.
“The big question is how do brain dynamics make computation in the brain work, and how do failures in brain dynamics lead to failure in psychology,” he said.
Measured in the peaks and valleys of voltage and the rush of blood, the brain’s dynamics are at the core of Moore’s work in the lab.
“The question that wakes me up in the morning is how is the brain dynamic and what does that mean for the computations it performs?” he said. “How do circuits function adaptively on the timescale of milliseconds to seconds?
“That requires understanding the mechanisms. If you see an oscillation in the brain, why did it happen at 40 Hertz vs. 10 Hertz? And then the meaning. Why would a 40-Hertz oscillation facilitate the encoding of information?”
The vocabulary of mechanisms, milliseconds, and computations notwithstanding, Moore abhors the sterile and incomplete notion of the brain as a skull-shielded computer. He makes a point of framing the brain as a hungry, bloody organ. It doesn’t just process. It also needs.
“There’s this false idea that a neuron abstracts information,” he said. “That neuron is just as interested in its metabolism. That’s why it wants to know if that’s a hamburger on the plate. It’s not because it would like to extract features of the hamburger, it wants to eat the hamburger. It wants the organism to survive.”
Many of Moore’s studies have focused on perception and sensing because it’s complex enough to advance the study of the broader brain, yet it’s also simple enough to allow for real progress to be made. This summer he co-authored a paper in Nature Neuroscience demonstrating that a particular part of the brain, the thalamic reticular nucleus, is responsible for driving a chain reaction of neural activation, called “sleep spindles,” that can influence sensory processing, sleep and waking, and potentially the consolidation of memory during sleep.
A few months earlier, research that Moore co-authored showed people who meditate are better able to control some of the brain oscillations associated with distraction, essentially suppressing unwanted sensory inputs.
Dynamics also can get out of control. When that happens, Moore hypothesizes, they may underlie a wide variety of psychiatric disease. Schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, and other conditions intuitively seem to have a lot to do with an errant handling of sensory information and attention. The sleep spindles he studies, for example, are implicated in schizophrenia.
Moore has another idea he’d like to continue testing at Brown: Blood flow is not merely a consequence of the brain’s operations (e.g., blood feeds brain cells as they work), but also helps guide it (e.g., blood influences how neurons do their work). In academic circles this is known as the Hemo-Neural Hypothesis.
For all the research ambition, Moore came to Brown to teach as well. Scholarship at a university, he said, is only as healthy as the curiosity and passion of its first-semester undergrads. “The measure of success of the scholarly enterprise is that it succeeds at all levels,” he said.
Moore is demonstrably dedicated to the idea, having won two awards at MIT for teaching. And Brown, said the former Oberlin philosophy undergrad, not only has a well-balanced mix of commitment to research and teaching, but also a similarly even blend between science and humanities.
“Brown is in my estimation the best place for getting all parts of that equation right,” Moore said.