The University of Arizona

Brain Evolution to be Explored During UA College of Science Lecture Series

By College of Science, January 17, 2014

This year’s talks, beginning Jan. 27, will focus on how brains originated and where the evolution of our own brain will take us.

The University of Arizona College of Science's popular spring lecture series will present six free lectures exploring the evolution of the astonishingly complex human brain.

The topics to be covered over the entire series include brain imaging, the history of brain surgery, the ancestral circuits that can be found in the modern brain and the essentially perfect way our brains solve problems. The first lecture will be on Monday, Jan. 27, at 7 p.m. in Centennial Hall on the UA campus.

The human brain is the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution.

Layered upon its ancestral core of ancient molecules and neural circuits, new structures evolved that expand the capacity of our brains to process information flexibly and to perform complex behaviors.

Human brains are continuously remodeled by environmental forces and by the enormous sum of information and technologies generated by human inventiveness. These new technologies further expand our power to manipulate information and interact with countless others in remote environments that once were far beyond our reach.

Today sophisticated techniques allow us to probe the structure and function of our own brains and those of other species to better understand how brains originated and where the evolution of our own brain will take us.

All “The Evolving Brain” lectures are free and open to the public. The lectures will be held at Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd., on the UA campus. Pay visitor parking is available in the Tyndall Avenue Garage, 880 E. Fourth St.

The scheduled lectures:

Jan. 27 | Time Traveling: What Our Brains Share With Beetle Brains

Nicholas J. Strausfeld

Director, Center for Insect Science
UA Regents’ Professor of Neuroscience

Emerging evidence suggests that distantly related animals such as mice and flies manifest similar behaviors because they have genealogically corresponding brain centers. The view is that a common ancestor had already evolved circuits for behavioral actions, memory of such actions, and their consequences more than half a billion years ago. Evidence that those circuits have been inherited through geological time challenges how we as a species relate to animals that we view as wholly different from ourselves.

Feb.  3 | A Window Into the Brain: Viewed Through the Evolution of MRI Technology

Dr. Diego R. Martin

Chair, Department of Medical Imaging

Professor of Medicine

UA College of Medicine

The evolution of MRI technology and its use to study brain structure and function has revealed much of what we know today about the evolving brain and has revolutionized clinical care. Rich visual content will be used to illustrate the technical elements that have been pieced together over time to form the modern MRI scanner. Each element of MRI technology will be introduced from the historical timeline as the scanner system is built piece-by-piece for the audience. Milestones and personalities will be introduced to add meaning and significance, showing the innovative spirit and creativity of this technology’s development.

Feb. 10 | The Evolution of Modern Neurosurgery: A History of Trial and Error, Success and Failure

Dr. G. Michael Lemole Jr.

Chief, Division of Neurosurgery

Professor of Surgery

UA College of Medicine

The science and art of neurosurgery has advanced dramatically in the past few decades, and yet its history is firmly grounded in a paradigm of surgical trial and error. Collaborations with allied specialties have made these “trials” safer, but much of what we know of functional brain anatomy comes from disease or iatrogenic (harm resulting from medical examination or treatment) perturbations. This lecture will explore the keen observations and dogged persistence that led to our current state of the art. We will explore how this surgical knowledge of the brain makes our current practice safer and how future technologies will advance our understanding with less invasive but more meaningful impact.

Feb. 17 | The Literate Brain 

Pélagie M. Beeson

Professor and Head
UA Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences 
 
Written language represents a relatively recent cultural invention, and unlike the development of spoken language, literacy requires explicit and prolonged instruction. How is this accomplished? Do unique regions of the brain develop in support of reading and spelling, or are these skills dependent upon brain regions involved in other perceptual and cognitive processes? By studying disorders that arise following brain damage in previously literate adults, and by using brain imaging techniques to examine neural activity as healthy individuals engage in reading and spelling, a new understanding of the brain is being revealed. Further clarification comes from rehabilitation research that promotes the return of written language skills and provides a view of the brain’s plasticity.
 
Mar. 3 | The Ancestors in Our Brains 
 
Associate Professor, Physiology
Assistant Professor, Neurology
Assistant Professor, Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute
 
The human brain retains ancestral neural circuits that support behaviors geared toward satisfying basic biological needs. Superimposed on these core circuits are newly evolved structures that specialize in complex computations. These specializations convey flexibility to the brain and the ability to distill information into abstract thought. The ancient molecules and core circuits that make us social and emotional beings interface harmoniously with the newly evolved structures that make us thinkers and inventors of technology. 
 
Mar. 10 | More Perfect Than We Think 
 
John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics 
Princeton University
 
From its ability to appreciate beauty, to the reassembly of distant childhood memories, to our almost unthinking ability to respond to the unexpected, is our brain really doing a "good job" at solving the problems we confront as we move through the world? Has evolution granted us a rich inheritance of tools, or saddled us with artifacts of a distant past, limiting our ability to solve new problems? Many other animals, from insects to our fellow primates, do many equally remarkable things. But several examples will be presented allowing us to see how the human brain solves problems in an essentially perfect way – no machine operating under the same physical constraints could do better. Examining what is common among the problems that the brain is good at solving begins to suggest a more general principle that may be at work.
 
Funding for the College of Science Spring 2014 Lecture Series is provided by: Arizona Daily Star; Galileo Circle; Godat Design; Holualoa Companies; Marshall Foundation; Steven J. Miller Foundation; Miraval Resort & Spa; Raytheon; Research Corporation for Science Advancement; Hugh and Allyn Thompson; Tucson Electric Power Co.; University of Arizona Medical Center; and Ventana Medical Systems Inc.