Brain research is centered at Peretsman Scully Hall, left, home to the psychology department, and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
Brain research is centered at Peretsman Scully Hall, left, home to the psychology department, and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.
Denise Applewhite/Office of Communications

When PAW first considered doing an issue about neuroscience and the brain, I visited Jonathan Cohen, co-director of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, to discuss what we might write about. Cohen was ebullient about the advances being made in his field. He rattled off half a dozen Princeton professors whose research on how we think, learn, remember, and behave could someday change our lives for the better: Ways to overcome traumatic memories. A sort of mind-reading that could provide insight into the minds of coma patients. Tools that could increase concentration and aid in learning. (See articles on pages 32 and 38.) That all sounded amazing — full speed ahead!

A few weeks later, I visited Matthew Liao ’94, an ethicist at New York University who specializes in the ethics of neuroscience technologies (page 42). He, too, was excited; he, too, rattled off research underway in labs around the world — indeed, some of the same things Cohen had mentioned. But at one point, Liao picked up a dinner knife from the table. Some people would use a knife to cut an apple, he said. But others would use it for violence. The question of “dual use” technology has been around since humankind invented tools, he said, noting some questionable uses of the emerging technology. Scientists and philosophers, he suggested, should talk to each other more.

Neuroscience has become one of the world’s hottest disciplines, including at Princeton, where the Princeton Neuroscience Institute was launched in 2005. Contributions to the Aspire campaign created new research centers, brought in faculty members, and increased student support. And last month, Princeton’s faculty endorsed an undergraduate concentration in the field (it must be approved by trustees). Until now, neuroscience has been strictly a certificate program, and its popularity has grown dramatically: About 50 students graduated with certificates in neuroscience last year, up from two at its inception. 

Under the new plan, Princeton will offer both the concentration and the certificate, which is expected to draw humanists and social scientists with interests in neuroscience. That could help spark exactly the kind of conversations Liao proposes — between those students poised to make extraordinary discoveries about the brain’s secrets, and those who help us think about where they all could lead.