By Bruce Goldman
Stanford researcher Rob Malenka, MD, PhD, is known as "a neuroscientist's neuroscientist." In the late 1980s, he played a leading role in the discovery of key mechanisms by which our synapses – the all-important contacts through which one nerve cell, or neuron, conveys signals to the next neuron in a circuit – adjust their own strength so as to convey those signals either more easily or less so, in response to experience. This set of mechanisms underlies learning, memory, oblivion – and, by extension, depression, addiction, social behavior and much more. Malenka has contributed to our understanding of all these phenomena.
I've had a great time interviewing Malenka (he's a very funny guy) about how come we get the blues, how it is that we can walk and chew gum, why there should be psychiatric research on Ecstasy and other psychotropic drugs, why we like to hang out with our buddies, what goes on in our brain circuits that makes addictive drugs "better than the real thing" and many other topics.
Now the journal Neuron, in which the pioneering brain spelunker has published much of his pathbreaking work, has taken the hint and interviewed Malenka, too, for a profile touching on a range of subjects from his own career trajectory to his approach to boosting those of his trainees to the future of neuroscience.
Here's a tidbit from that interview in which Malenka offers some perspective on what he feels are the most important questions for neuroscientists to be asking:
[S]tudying neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer's is certainly of great importance. However, of equal if not greater importance is studying the neural mechanisms underlying aggression and anger as well as empathy and compassion. It does us no good to live longer with less cognitive impairment if we remain irrationally angry at individuals who appear different from us and we are unable to have empathy and compassion for those who are less fortunate than us.