Like most of my colleagues in the Department of Pharmacology, I am interested in the molecular bases of disease. However, I am also interested in the human bases of human illness that are not necessarily molecular. In particular, I am interested in the relationship between mind and body wellness – or its disruption – illness. Thus, although I have closed down molecular ‘bench’ research, I continue to pursue learning in the area of so-called alternative or mind/body medicine. Motivation for this is based both on intellectual curiosity and on the desire to apply both ‘molecular’ and ‘humanistic’ knowledge in the training of students. There is good reason to anticipate that students so trained will be less stressed and more empathetic health care providers.
The area of interest of my ‘scholarly research’ (i.e., reading) that ties molecular and human processes together is in so-called mirror neurons, and the phenomenon of ‘mirroring’ by the human brain. Mirror neurons were discovered by Giacomo Rizzolatti in Parma, Italy. Mirror neurons were so named because they fire both when a subject performs a certain motor activity (such as grasping or a dance routine), and when that subject perceives (sight or sound) another member of the same or a related species engaging in that same motor activity.
Since the initial discovery of mirror neurons in Macaque monkeys, mirroring has been amply demonstrated in human brains. For example, Marco Iacoboni and his co-workers at the Brain Mapping Center at UCLA have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to demonstrate mirroring in humans. A rapidly growing literature links the activity of mirror neurons, and the phenomenon of mirroring to such diverse functions as early brain development, learning, understanding language and empathy, among other phenomena.
If mirroring is involved in emotional understanding within members of the same species, then it may be expected that if mirroring were impaired that there would be a deficit in empathic, or emotional understanding. Dapretto et al., have shown that the mirror system in the brains of autistic children function less well than normal, and that the degree of deficit is related to the clinical score. I was fortunate to be able to spend two months at the Brain Mapping Center at UCLA studying with Iacoboni, Dapretto and their colleagues. In addition, I was able to spend a month with Wolf Singer at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany. While Singer’s colleagues do not specifically study mirror neurons, they are tackling the hard problem of consciousness – which will, from my point of view, be intimately involved in mirroring, interpersonal communication, and empathy, among other important phenomena.
I am trying to pursue the slippery question of whether there may be certain brain exercises, or techniques that can improve the activity of the mirror neuron systems of the human brain. There is evidence from Shapiro et al. that a meditative approach known as mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) decreases stress and anxiety and increases empathy in medical and pre-medical students. MBSR was developed and popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts.
Whether MBSR works by increasing the activity of mirror neuron systems of the brain remains an open question at this time. Irrespective of the mechanism(s), the pragmatic results strongly suggest that we need to pursue such approaches in the training of all health care providers. It is one of the reasons for my involvement in teaching in UCONJ 531.
When my faculty career began I returned to electrophysiological and mechanical studies of cardiac cells. Work in that area produced some interesting results (thank you W. Curt Appel and thank you Myung K. Park).
However, the richness of the plasma membrane calcium pump and its potential relationship to health and disease prompted pursuit in that direction that our lab followed for about 25 years. During this entire period of study, Thomas R. Hinds, Ph.D., was a mentor to myself and all of the technicians, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in the lab. The discovery of the activation of the plasma membrane calcium pump ATPase by calmodulin was a happy accident (thank you Martha Farrance and Rama Gopinath).
Further analysis of the activation of the Ca pump ATPase by calmodulin and antagonism of calmodulin by certain drugs was shown by Beat Raess now a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University School of Medicine in Evansville
The importance of the regulation of intracellular calcium in red cell physiology and pathophysiology was explored by a number of sabbatical and postdoctoral colleagues including Doctors Robin Dodson and Wu Ling and a supremely dedicated and capable technician, Dennis DiJulio.
Thank you very much to all of my colleagues and co-workers who taught me, and each other, so much.