Peering into the human brain with a world-renowned neurobiologist

      From emojis to cookie cutters, the heart is emblematic of love and passion.

      The perception of the heart as the generator of emotions dates back millennia and is still heard today in the language we use to describe the heartbreak of unrequited love and the heartache of profound misery. Even memory is relegated to our blood-pumping organ, when we remember new information by heart.

      At some point, we learn that in fact it is the brain, not the heart, which generates and controls the polyphony of our emotions, the essence of our creativity, the outpouring of our wildest imaginings. Language, thought, movement, behavior and belief all originate in the brain.

      However for many of us, there is yet another leap of understanding to be made before we can begin to grasp the triumphs and aspirations of modern day neuroscience.

      “The brain is a sophisticated machine – it is built from nerve cells that carry electrical and chemical activity,” explains world-renowned neurobiologist Idan Segev, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “To understand ourselves, we need to understand this amazing machine.”

      Segev emphasizes the importance of constructing a mathematical model or a computer simulation of the brain. Based on experimental data, such a model will reveal not only how memories are formed and how emotions are conjured, but also the causes of brain diseases.

      “A detailed and accurate computer model of the brain may generate the activity that signifies Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s,” Segev explains, “and when we see the characteristics of the condition in the computer model, we will then be able to find ways to fix the model. This will suggest ways that we can fix the problems in a real brain.”

      His vision is to have “simulated-based medication,” or drugs that will be suggested by and tested on the computer model, before entering the pharmacopeia.

      It is Segev’s hope that a computational model of the brain, if accurate enough, will ultimately lead to an understanding of human emotions and, most importantly, human creativity. Then we will be able to find ways to release the rich creative potential that, he believes, is hidden within all of our brains.

      “Eventually,” he says with a wry smile, “we will understand everything.”

      According to Segev, “it is our creativity that is the most prominent capability that sets us apart from other animals.”

      For the past 200,000 years, he explains, we have not undergone any significant genetic change. We have the same genome and therefore the same brain as our ancient homo sapiens ancestors. Throughout most of this period, we have focused on the challenges of survival, and it is our creativity (the good, the bad and the ugly) that has made us into the species that dominates the world today.

      For the earliest artistic examples of our creative genius, Segev points to the Le Chauvet cave paintings in France, and the Altamira cave paintings in Spain, both dated at around 30,000 to 35,000 years old.

      Even older is the Lion Man, an intricate 30-cm sculpture in mammoth bone, dated at around 35,000 to 40,000 years old, which was discovered in a German cave. Recent research has revealed that it would have taken 400 hours of skilled craftsmanship to produce it. And the recent identification of organic matter, perhaps blood, in its mouth hints at primeval religious belief.

      So, what is it that enables the human brain to reach such creative heights? And what is it that makes our brains so different from that of other animals? Segev suggests that it is neither size nor the number of brain cells – though the number of these neurons is important, and at 100 billion per human brain, that’s pretty impressive. Gorillas have about a third of this number and elephants have almost three times as many. But in terms of the ratio of brain size to body weight, we trump them all.

      What really matters, Segev believes, is the interconnections between all these cells.

      There are around 100 trillion synapses, or points of contact between neurons, in the human brain. However, not all of these synapses are always active – they change, both in the strength of existing connections as well as in the forming of new ones.

      Everything we do changes the pattern of connections and, consequently, the electrical activity in the brain that codes for new memories.

      Remember being told that you only use 10 percent of your brain? Segev was only seven when his teacher shared with him this supposed fact and he found it perplexing. In truth, we use all of our brain cells all of the time.

      Segev refers to this realization as one of two “light bulb moments” that set him on the road to becoming a neuroscientist.

      The second was at the age of 17, when he read about an experiment that demonstrated that a kitten only learns to see if it is able to move around, otherwise it will grow up blind! Sight and movement, it seems, are intimately connected in the brain; movement is essential for a correct interpretation of the visual signals we experience.

      In the human brain we have particularly intense long-range connections between different regions, and an extraordinary complexity of connections locally, with a single neuron in direct communication with about 30,000 other cells in its neighborhood or with cells projecting from further away.

      But even this is not enough to explain creativity. Segev suspects that the secret of creativity also has something to do with the fact that our nerve cells have a unique, “spontaneous” background electrical activity, an incessant electrical murmuring.

      This background electrical noise means that the brain responds in a slightly different way to identical inputs. Within this variability, Segev sees the possibility of a mechanism of creativity – in other words, you think differently although you receive a repeated input. Such randomized behavior of nerve cells will no doubt make constructing a computer model of the brain even more difficult.

      Undaunted, computational neurobiologists are already building a digital simulation of several cubic millimeters of rodent brain, something around the size of a pinhead.

      But even these humble beginnings are complex and expensive and require the cooperation of scientists from many fields.

      Segev is a member and founder of several interdisciplinary groups. He was the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation at the Hebrew University, which blossomed into the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC).

      Segev is also part of the Human Brain Project, a 10-year initiative with a billion- euro budget and 100 laboratories, most of them in Europe, collaborating. The HBP affords him complete access to the IBM Blue Gene computer, which is capable of around six trillion operations a second. Although the computer actually sits in Lugano, Switzerland, Segev and his students can log on from their ELSC lab.

      On the day I meet Segev, he has just heard that a proposal to the US National Institutes for Health for a collaborative venture focused on human neurons had received a grant of $19.4 million for a five-year project.

      This project will bring together a group from the prestigious Allen Institute in Seattle, Washington, with four other groups – from Sweden, Hungary, Amsterdam and Segev’s, at the Hebrew University.

      “You have really come at a special time,” he says.

      The important thing now, he insists, is to shift from working with rodents to working with human cells and neuronal circuits.

      “The human brain is so much more sophisticated.”

      Using fresh, living human brain cells for research may sound like a good idea, but getting a hold of them is another story.

      Segev recently received a phone call from Prof. Natan Bornstein, an old army buddy of his. Bornstein, a neurologist, had moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to become director and coordinator of the neurological- neurosurgical-neuroradiological service at the new neurology department at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Just a few minutes’ drive from the Edmond J. Safra campus on Givat Ram at the Hebrew University, this hospital is now a major center for brain surgery.

      It turns out that perfectly good, healthy brain cells are thrown away every day at the department. When deep brain tumors are removed, small pieces of normal tissue are cut out to provide access to the tumor, and the healthy cells are tossed.

      In October, Segev received ethical permission to use this healthy tissue in research at the Hebrew University. The first batch will soon arrive from Shaare Zedek and will be shared among the five groups at the Hebrew University. The prospect marks the beginning of a new era as research shifts from rodent brain cells to human ones.

      Segev’s enthusiasm for his research is palpable. Speaking to him, you feel as if every sinew of his lean frame is focused on furthering our understanding of ourselves.

      And then he says, “But there is something I am really, really interested in!” And the conversation turns in a completely different direction.

      He proceeds to tell me about a new online, open access, science magazine for kids, “Frontiers for Young Minds.” The magazine is actually an offshoot of another project that has essentially changed the culture of science.

      Currently, the process for getting a paper published in a scientific journal begins by it being sent to a publication’s editors, many of whom are not scientists, who reject 50-60 percent of submissions before sending them to a peer reviewer. The reviewers then reject a further 90 percent.

      Segev’s main criticism is that “the culture is to find faults in a paper and reject rather than to help the authors improve their work.”

      The idea of changing this approach came to Segev about 10 years ago while at a conference in Brazil with fellow researcher Henry Markram.

      The two went on to set up “Frontiers,” an open access series of journals, where scientists post their papers online and reviewers, out of a pool of over 50,000 scientists, choose to review them. The reviewer then becomes a partner with the researchers and can suggest improvements and extensions to the research. When the paper is finally published online, the reviewers are named as part of the paper because they are seen as active participants in the research process.

      An outgrowth of this initiative was a science magazine for kids. Its format was inspired by Bob Knight, professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. He insisted that, for a scientific journal for kids, the reviewers should be kids. The articles are written by leading scientists worldwide who are then grilled and challenged by kids, until the article is deemed to have sufficient clarity to be published online. Segev is currently setting it up in Hebrew for Israeli children.

      The hub of Segev’s multitude of projects is a modest office on the ground floor of the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences at Givat Ram. With no pretensions of architectural distinction, its long windowless corridors with exposed pipework recall a passageway to a ship’s boiler room. But take a deep breath before you open the door to Segev’s office and prepare for a visual experience that feels like stepping into a futuristic movie.

      It is neither the dusty shelves laden with books nor the mounds of papers that cover the desk that will claim your attention. Nor is it the bare walls apart from a small picture of a neural network or the whiteboard scrawled with snatches of things mathematical and neurological that will hold you in awe.

      On the far side of the room, wall-to-wall windows look out onto a rocky plateau below where the shimmering façade of the new Suzanne and Charles Goodman Brain Sciences Building stands. Designed by eminent British architect Lord Norman Foster, the four-story structure will soon become the new home of Segev’s lab and the pioneering, interdisciplinary ELSC.

      Overlaid with gleaming 21st-century filigree, this esthetic delight hints at pattern and order, embedded in randomness. “They are Henry Markram’s neurons – or rather, from his rat brains,” explains Segev, “and we at ELSC had the idea of this neuron trellis wrapping round the building.”

      Looking at this innovative building, one can’t help but wonder about the potential output of the creative power of Segev and his team working within.

      Read the source article at Jpost


      Hebrew U. researchers show which foods prevent, promote dementia

      Foods can determine whether someone will suffer from dementia in later years, according to researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in Rehovot.

      A large-scale international study that included the university recently examined how food affects brain health for people aged 50 and older. The researchers were able to show that diet affects the risk of dementia.

      This conclusion, although logical, is not self-evident, said Prof. Aron Troen, an expert in nutritional neuroscience and the prevention of cerebrovascular disease and dementia, and the principal investigator of Hebrew University’s Nutrition and Brain Health Laboratory in Rehovot.

      Among the foods proven to prevent dementia are: blueberries (not just the juice), healthful fats (as in olive oil), nuts (in small amounts to avoid excess calories) and fish. Other beneficial foods include: beans and legumes, fruits, low-calorie dairy products like yogurt, chicken and whole-grain cereals.

      Among the foods that have been shown to promote dementia are: fried foods, sugary foods, processed foods, red meat, fat, cheese and salt.

      The report was published in the journal of the American Association of Retired Persons, the most widely circulated journal in the US.

      The study was conducted in collaboration with dozens of countries, including the US, China, Switzerland and Australia. It examined the scientific basis of preserving brain health and preventing dementia in old age.

      The team produced a consensus report with convincing evidence that diet affects the risk of dementia.

      Read the source article at Jpost


      One drug could treat Alzheimer’s, MS, Crohn’s and more

      Could one drug effectively treat incurable inflammatory diseases such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis as well as neurodegenerative maladies such as Alzheimer’s disease?

      Yes, says Prof. David Naor, speaking with ISRAEL21c at the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology in Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem.

      All these diseases, he explains, are associated with pathological amyloid proteins that could be neutralized by the 5-mer peptide Naor has spent the last 10 years researching and developing with the support of the university’s Yissum technology-transfer company, the Israeli government and Spherium Biomed of Spain.

      It will take several million dollars to start clinical trials of Naor’s novel, IP-protected peptide — a synthetic protein snippet that significantly reverses the damaging effects of inflammatory diseases and Alzheimer’s disease in mouse models, and restores the learning capacity of Alzheimer’s mice.

      “I believe that within two years we would know for certain if our academic product can translate into a therapeutic drug to combat inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases,” Naor says.

      “Once you control the inflammation, you can control the disease, so our target is to reduce as much as possible the inflammatory activity.”

      Prof. David Naor at Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90

      Rheumatoid arthritis

      Naor began by studying 5-mer’s effectiveness in rheumatoid arthritis, which affects about one percent of the world population. Currently, about $30 billion worth of biologic drugs are sold each year that effectively control, but cannot cure, rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Furthermore, these drugs don’t work in one-third of patients.

      The results of Naor’s experiments were astounding. When mice with collagen-induced arthritis were treated with 5-mer peptide, the severely inflamed tissues in their joints reverted to nearly normal. No harmful side effects were observed.

      Multiple sclerosis and IBD

      “Once the rheumatoid arthritis experiment was repeated successfully several times, we looked at a different chronic inflammatory disease – multiple sclerosis, where the inflammation is not in the joints but in the brain,” says Naor.

      Multiple sclerosis (MS) is the most widespread disabling neurological condition of young adults around the world, usually striking between the ages of 20 and 50. There is no cure, but the Israeli-developed blockbuster drug Copaxone reduces the frequency of relapses.

      Here, too, Naor’s results were noteworthy. Five days after MS-like disease was induced in mice, 5-mer peptide injections caused a significant decrease in accumulation of inflammatory cells in the central nervous system and significant reduction in limb paralysis. The effects were weaker when the disease was more progressed, but theoretically the peptide could be introduced during a remission phase of MS.

      Recently, in collaboration with Prof. Haim Ovadia from Hadassah University Medical Center, Naor’s lab achieved another breakthrough by delivering 5-mer peptide via mouth rather than by injections, with the same therapeutic effect.

      “That means that we may be able to produce pills for oral delivery rather than to provide the drug by injection,” Naor says.

      Spherium Biomed tests of 5-mer peptide in mouse models of inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) showed it can reduce the gut inflammation in IBD better than the currently prescribed biological medication, which is effective only in half of IBD patients.

      Alzheimer’s disease 

      After a quarter-century of failed efforts to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, investment money is dwindling. Yet the number of cases is climbing rapidly along with related costs. About one in nine Americans over 65 has this fatal degenerative neurological disorder affecting 44 million people worldwide.

      In collaboration with Prof. Hanna Rosenmann from Hadassah, Naor’s lab studied the effect of mer-5 peptide in mice with induced Alzheimer’s disease.

      Cognitively normal mice placed inside a watery maze learned quickly how to swim to a safe platform and were able to find it faster with every subsequent attempt. But the Alzheimer’s mice took longer finding the platform every time, due to memory difficulties.

      After treatment with 5-mer peptide, the Alzheimer’s mice regained their ability to learn the location of the platform as quickly as cognitively normal mice.

      “We can restore the memory of the animal. This doesn’t mean we’re going to cure Alzheimer’s but it does mean we have to do everything possible to see if our peptide could be successful where so many other potential anti-Alzheimer drugs have failed,” says Naor.

      The 5-mer peptide appears to prevent the accumulation of amyloid–beta in the brain. Amyloid–beta clumps are believed to attract harmful inflammatory cells from the immune system, thus enhancing Alzheimer’s disease.

      The mechanism of action of the 5-mer peptide was proven on various harmful amyloid proteins, using sophisticated imaging tools in the lab of Prof. Mary Cowman at New York University.

      “We can inject 5-mer peptide even after the disease has started, and it will work,” says Naor. “We don’t yet know if there is a point of no return when it would no longer work.”

      Spherium Biomed now seeks funding for the next step, human clinical trials.

      “Because the peptide was derived from human material, it makes sense that it is going to work in humans at least as well as in mice,” concludes Naor.

      Read the source article at ISRAEL21c


      Why Israel rocks at commercializing academic innovations

      It’s no coincidence that Harvard and UCLA chose experienced Israelis to direct their technology-transfer offices. Cash-strapped universities urgently need to streamline the transfer of inventions from lab bench to market, and Israeli TTOs have a remarkable track record of generating more revenue from IP sales than any other country except the United States.

      “Universities are reinventing themselves as microenvironments for innovation and entrepreneurship. A university that can’t demonstrate its impact on industry and the marketplace will become less relevant in the future,” says Benjamin Soffer, chairman of Israel Tech Transfer Network.

      Soffer, who frequently hosts TTO officials from top universities in the United States, Europe and the Far East, also heads the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s T3 TTO, which encompasses two technology incubators and 90 spin-off companies including ReWalk Robotics and Mazor Robotics.

      The Technion’s net research budget of roughly $90 million pales in comparison to MIT’s $1.5 billion, yet its income from commercialization of research is similar, says Soffer.

      “Even more remarkable, the combined research budget of all Israeli universities is half the research budget of MIT. This is validation of the strength of the technology we produce.”

      Soffer says Israel’s startup ecosystem provides an efficient “packaging” system for the flood of innovation from universities and military tech units.

      “Startups have small teams with tight budgets and schedules and no bureaucracy, so they can be extremely effective. The tech transfer is done through these startups, and big companies don’t mind paying a premium for getting that technology at a later stage when it has been de-risked by the startup.”

      Born abroad, raised in Israel

      The concept of technology transfer was born at the University of Wisconsin in 1925, later to be nurtured and refined in Israel through the world’s second and third TTOs – the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Yeda Research & Development Company in 1959 and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Yissum Research Development Company in 1964.

      According to the most recent Weizmann data, nearly 2,000 patent families have been registered by Yeda and 73 companies were spun off, generating a cumulative $28 billion in sales. Yeda’s first blockbuster deal was licensing multiple sclerosis drug Copaxone to Teva Pharmaceuticals in 1987.

      Yissum is Israel’s biggest TTO in terms of patents (10,000-plus), licenses (900) and spinoff companies (125, including standouts such as Mobileye and BriefCam) in a wide variety of fields. In the global seed industry, the long-shelf-life cherry tomato developed at Hebrew University is a primary example.

      Some Israeli healthcare organizations also have TTOs.

      The nonprofit Israel Tech Transfer Network includes BGN (Ben-Gurion University), BIRAD (Bar-Ilan University), Carmel-Haifa University Economic Corp. (University of Haifa), Gavish Galilee Bioapplications (MIGAL Galilee Research Institute), Hadasit (Hadassah Medical Organization), Mor Research Applications (Clalit Health Services), Ramot (Tel Aviv University), T3, Tel Aviv Medical Center, Yeda and Yissum.

      Becoming a bridge

      Dr. Vladi Dvoyris, director of venture community at Tel Aviv University’s Coller Institute of Venture, says Israeli academic institutions developed a unique way of managing tech transfer.

      “Foreign universities usually have two entities, one looking inward for IP worth licensing and one looking outward and liaising with industry. Those two are sometimes not communicating well. The Israeli model has a single point of contact for industry and academic researchers,” Dvoyris tells ISRAEL21c.

      When former Yeda and Ramot CEO Isaac Kohlberg was hired to head the Harvard Office of Technology Development in 2005, and when former Yeda CEO Amir Naiberg took the reins at Westwood Technology Transfer at UCLA in 2016, they had the opportunity to introduce the integrated Israeli approach, says Dvoyris.

      Today’s TTOs must do much more than protect intellectual property (IP), says Yissum’s new CEO, Yaron Daniely. They need to share information among one another and, most importantly, build bridges facilitating the free transfer of ideas and opportunities between the academic world and the outside world of entrepreneurs, investors, industries and communities.

      “When you’re a bridge and not a knight in shining armor safeguarding the ivory tower, you understand that it’s only helpful when both worlds – academia and industry — benefit. If one world shrinks and dies, the other won’t prosper either,” Daniely tells ISRAEL21c.

      “The good TTOs are experimenting with new models to make sure they stay relevant and effective for the benefit of both sides and eventually for the benefit of society,” says Daniely, who holds a PhD from NYU Medical School and an MBA from Technion.

      The growth of Jerusalem’s venture ecosystem has contributed to more and bigger deals (think Mobileye, acquired by Intel last March for $15.3 billion). Yissum also has partnerships with the likes of J&J, Novartis, Merck and Google.

      Soffer says the volume and speed of deal-making matters more than the terms of the deals. “Technology is all about serendipity and you have to be ready when opportunity presents itself. Most tech-transfer companies in the world are not ready or able to respond quickly. This deal-making approach is unique to Israeli academia.”

      And while many university TTOs run entrepreneur clubs, Israeli universities separate the two, encouraging innovation within the university environment even for entrepreneurs planning to retain their IP, says Dvoyris.

      HUStart, Hebrew University’s entrepreneurship center, opened the IP-free zone BioGiv as an “excubator” for this purpose.

      Healthcare TTOs

      Tamar Raz, head of Hadasit the commercialization arm of Hadassah Medical Organization, was invited to speak at the 2017 annual meeting of the US-based Association of University Technology Managers held in Miami.

      “There is very high appreciation for what’s going on in Israel in technology transfer,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “We are considered very advanced both professionally and in terms of the quality of the agreements we do with companies all over the world.”

      Founded in 1986 as Israel’s first hospital-based TTO, Hadasit holds fewer patents than, say, the Cleveland Clinic but compares favorably in terms of patents per dollar of research budget, says Raz, who came to Hadasit from Ramot at Tel Aviv University, where she earned a PhD in biology. “

      What’s unique is the relevancy of our patents to real medical and pharmaceutical needs because the physicians are familiar with those needs. We also help companies with consulting services from Hadassah physicians,” says Raz.

      Like many TTOs, Hadasit is becoming more proactive by “going out and looking for companies willing to advance our inventions.”

      In 2006, Hadasit established a public holding company, Hadasit BioHoldings (HBL), enabling investment in its biotech startups through the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. HBL’s first exit was Cell Cure Neurosciences, in a $12.75 million deal with Biotime in June last year.

      “We’re now planning to raise another fund to support early-stage technologies in medical devices and digital health,” says Raz. “This is going on worldwide in TTOs. The big difference is that in the US, most of the investment in university and hospital early-stage technologies comes from philanthropic funds, while in Israel the funding sources are more business-oriented.”

      The experts we spoke to believe Israel will continue pioneering the evolving field of bringing innovations from bench to market.

      “The startup nation is an example of how Israel has reinvented the way entrepreneurship works, and we are very capable of reinventing technology transfer. Because of the density of our innovation and networking in the world, Israel could be uniquely positioned to lead this transformation,” says Daniely.

      Read the source article at ISRAEL21c


      Solving the Mysteries of the Human Brain

      Every day at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the world’s best scientists collaborate to unravel the mysteries of the human mind. Working together to explore the brain’s complexities — how we think, learn, create, and remember — these researchers seek to cure neurological diseases faster and bring life-changing innovations to the world. American Friends of the Hebrew University supports these efforts because we believe science fuels a brighter future.

      Because knowledge moves us…to be better, to know more, and to discover.

      Explore what science for the global good looks like.

      One example of how Hebrew University researchers are revolutionizing neuroscience is mapping brains of the blind.

      Studying the brain activity of blind people, scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are challenging the standard view of how the human brain specializes to perform different kinds of tasks and shedding new light on how our brains can adapt to the rapid cultural and technological changes of the 21st century.

      The accepted view in previous decades was that the brain is divided into distinct regions mainly by the sensory input that activates them, such as the visual cortex for sight and the auditory cortex for sound. Within these large regions, sub-regions have been defined which are specialized for specific tasks such as the “visual word form area,” a functional brain region believed to identify words and letters from shape images even before they are associated with sounds or meanings. Similarly, there is another area that specializes in number symbols.

      However, a series of studies at Hebrew University’s Amedi Lab for Brain and Multisensory Research challenges this view using unique tools known as Sensory Substitution Devices (SSDs).

      SSDs take information from one sense and present it to another, for example enabling blind people to “see” by using other senses such as touching or hearing. By using a smartphone or webcam to translate a visual image into a distinct soundscape, SSDs enable blind users to create a mental image of objects, such as their physical dimensions and color. With intense training, blind users can even “read” letters by identifying their distinct soundscape.

      “These devices can help the blind in their everyday life,” explains Professor Amir Amedi, “but they also open unique research opportunities by letting us see what happens in brain regions normally associated with one sense when the relevant information comes from another.”



      At Stanford, Israeli brain scientist thinks thoughts about thinking

      Ask Adi Mizrahi if he loves his work and his answer is a no-brainer.

      “I’m absolutely convinced I have the best job in the world,” said Mizrahi, a neurobiologist, award-winning scientist and the director of the Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences.

      Mizrahi, 47, now on sabbatical at Stanford University, is taking a year to talk to other scientists and learn about cutting-edge research techniques he can bring back to Israel. It’s part of his philosophy of interdisciplinary science, which he believes is crucial for understanding the brain.

      “I think it is a multidisciplinary problem,” he said. “You cannot neglect one side and expect to solve the problem.”

      It’s an approach he uses at the Center for Brain Sciences, which brings together physicists, neurobiologists, psychologists, computer scientists and engineers to collaborate on research. The cross-discipline point of view is essential because the brain is just too complicated to be understood by one approach. “If you only look at behavior, you’ll never know what the cells are doing,” Mizrahi said.

      Mizrahi, the author or co-author of more than 25 papers, with titles such as “Distinct Spatiotemporal Response Properties of Excitatory Versus Inhibitory Neurons in the Mouse Auditory Cortex,” does what he calls “basic research.” That means that it’s not dedicated to finding practical solutions for immediate problems. “We do it for the sake of knowledge,” he said.

      “We do it for the sake of knowledge.”

      But sometimes results come anyway. For example, the center — not Mizrahi personally — has made splashy headlines for therapies such as deep brain stimulation, a treatment for Parkinson’s disease.

      In 2009, Mizrahi won the Sir Zelman Cowen Universities Fund Prize for Discovery in Medical Research, which goes to a scientist under 45 at Hebrew University or the University of Sydney, in alternate years. The award honored Mizrahi for his work on new approaches that are “essential steps towards therapies which will allow the regeneration of brain structures from stem cell technology,” according to the prize website.

      Hebrew University’s brain sciences center was founded in 2009 with $20 million in funding from the Edmond J. Safra Foundation. In 2015 this was increased by another $30 million, a hefty chunk of the center’s $150 million initial budget. Next year, the center will move into a new 156,000-square-foot home, the Goodman Brain Sciences building. (The new building will be the largest neuroscience center in Israel and one of the most ambitious in the world, according to Hebrew University.)

      Until then, Mizrahi says his time as a visiting professor at Stanford, where he can focus on studying and learning about techniques like revolutions in RNA sequencing, is a gift and a privilege. But he is also looking to the future, including to students he and others are training back at the Center for Brain Sciences.

      He said it’s those “the scientists of tomorrow” who are growing up within the interdisciplinary approach, who will be able to take research even further with their intuitive understanding of how to approach the brain from many points of view. But once they become scientists, they’ll find it’s a hard but rewarding road, where being ready to fail again and again is a prerequisite for the job.

      “Science is not for everyone,” Mizrahi said, even if he’s sure that it’s definitely for him.

      Read the source article at


      Chinese millionaire to set up artificial intelligence lab in Haifa

      Zong Qinghou, the CEO of one of China’s largest companies, announced plans to set up a research center at the University of Haifa focusing on artificial intelligence. The Chinese Academy of Sciences will also be a research partner. Zong will provide the AI center with at least $10 million over five years, the research partners announced at a signing event on Tuesday, with much of the funding going to construct laboratories and obtain high-end equipment, the University of Haifa’s President Ron Robin said. “For us, this is a game-changer. We get recognition by a major Chinese investor, that the work that we’re doing is significant,” Robin told The Jerusalem Post. Zong, who heads the Hangzhou Wahaha Group, China’s largest beverage company, has visited the University of Haifa’s campus four times. The research center will focus on improving the camera lens behind driverless cars – necessary for operating a vehicle when it’s raining or foggy – as major automobile companies and tech companies race to perfect the technology in the multi-billion dollar autonomous vehicle market. “We have developed a series of cameras that are able to reproduce very high-level resolution movies using a very small number of pixels. And coming from our marine sciences, we’ve developed a camera that works under water, its high resolution even when it works under water. One of our researchers developed a camera that can take underwater pictures at great depth with virtually no light,” Robin said. Other Israeli universities are jumping into the race to perfect driverless technology, from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology joining forces with Korean auto giant Hyundai to the Hebrew University working with Israeli firm Mobileye, which was sold to computer-chip maker Intel for $15 billion earlier this year. Most major automakers have established a research foothold in the country. The University of Haifa research center will also specialize in other AI fields, including bio-technology, big data applications and biometric identification, where Israeli security contractors are increasingly active. Robin said that the intellectual property developed at the Haifa AI research center would be divvied up fairly between the academic partners, the Chinese Wahaha Group, and the researcher involved. He did not detail the financial arrangement. Some academic-corporate partnerships in Israel have unraveled into lawsuits over who would make money from marketable lab innovations. Some 15 Israeli graduate students will travel to China for a semester-abroad program, and 15 Chinese post-doctoral students will conduct research in Israel. Around 200 Chinese students are already studying at the University of Haifa, out of 18,100 students enrolled on campus. Robin, who was previously a professor in the university’s history and communications department, said that Zong’s donation could open the door to other investors and collaborations with China. “This means that we joined a small group of universities around the world with major Chinese investment in its infrastructure and its graduate program,” Robin said, adding that the new research center testified to the weakness of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. “In China, BDS is a non-issue. It doesn’t exist. They have great admiration for Israeli academia,” he said. “The biggest problem is unofficial BDS, when someone takes a paper from one of our researchers, doesn’t even open it, and just throws it in the garbage. That’s the biggest problem in the Western world, not in China.” The University of Haifa is also engaged in two other Chinese research projects. With Shanghai’s East China Normal University, the Israeli school has set up the joint translational institute, which focuses on neuroscience. Another collaboration is with a group of Chinese investors who may invest $6m., mostly in bio-technology and pharmaceuticals. Zong said he chose to donate to the school because of Israel’s status as a start-up leader – with more hi-tech start-ups per capita than any other country. “Israel excels in having an advanced and innovative research ecosystem. We chose to collaborate with the highly accomplished researchers of the Haifa University… whom we believe can help us achieve our goal of creating revolutionary artificial intelligence technologies,” Zong said in a statement.

      Read the source article at Jpost


      Dr. Daniel-Robert Chebat

      Dr. Daniel-Robert Chebat is a post-doctoral fellow at the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC), working in the Department of Medical Neurobiology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  His research focuses on neural correlates of real and virtual navigation in people who are blind, using auditory and tactile sensory substitution devices.  Dr. Chebat works in Dr. Amir Amedi’s Laboratory of Multisensory Research, where the “virtual cane” device, dubbed “EyeCane,” was developed.  The hand-held virtual cane conveys information to the user through a series of vibrations allowing for the reconstruction of an accurate image of the surroundings, giving blind individuals the ability to safely navigate their environment.

      A frequent guest-lecturer in Israel and Canada, Dr. Chebat’s research has been published in a variety of journals.  He has been interviewed by Israeli and international television and radio news outlets and is the recipient of numerous honors and awards.  Dr. Chebat is a native of Canada and holds an M.A. degree in neuroanatomy and a Ph.D. in experimental neuropsychology from the Université de Montréal.




      Dr. Michael London

      Transforming our understanding of brain activity

      The brain is constantly abuzz with electrical signals transferring information between brain cells. The results of this intense electrical activity are the perceptions, thoughts, ideas, decisions, emotions, and movements that constitute human life. Deciphering the code that these cells use is one of the dominant challenges facing neuroscientists. Cracking the brain’s code—and discovering how neurons compute and transmit information–is the focus of the Neural Code Laboratory at ELSC.

      The Neural Code Laboratory is being directed by Dr. Michael (Mickey) London, who joined ELSC as a Senior Lecturer. The remarkable young Hebrew University alumnus earned his B.S. and Ph.D. at the university, completing his doctorate under the supervision of Professor Idan Segev at the Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation, which has become a vital part of ELSC. Dr. London conducted his post-doctoral work at University College, London (2002-2010), first as a Human Frontiers post doctoral fellow, and subsequently as an MRC senior research fellow and a Wellcome Trust research fellow. Working in the laboratory of Professor Michael Hausser, Dr. London refined his multi-disciplinary approach, focusing on the neural code and single neuron computation.

      Professor Eilon Vaadia, director of the ELSC stated: “Cracking the brain’s code—discovering how neurons compute and transmit information—is one of the most exciting areas of scientific research today. We were very pleased when Michael London, who has already established a reputation for himself in this area, joined ELSC.”

      Combining expertise in theory with cutting-edge practical skills, Dr. London has developed methodologies helpful to investigating how single neurons process information and communicate. His research, published in Nature (July 2010), is transforming scientific understanding of the impact of the activity of individual neurons on the larger neuron population. Dr. London has demonstrated that even the addition of a single electrical spike to one neuron can produce a significant effect on brain activity. This original and unexpected finding has led scientists to reexamine long-held assumptions about how information is coded and translated into behavior.

      Dr. London plans to study the effects of modifying signals while observing their behavior. This type of research was unimaginable before recent technological advances in optogenetics and two-photon imaging. A $ 400,000 two-photon microscope at Hebrew University is advancing these efforts: this microscope enables scientists to examine a live specimen and image living tissue up to a very high depth of about one millimeter. Thus scientists can image brain activity as it taking place—and without hurting laboratory animals. Dr. London’s goal is to image activity in a local neural network, identify and record the activity of an individual neuron that is participating in a specific computation, and manipulate activity in that single neuron, assessing its impact on coding and behavior.

      During 2011, Dr. London, along with his wife Niva, decided the time was right to move from London to Israel with their three children: Roni, Gilad, and Noga. A sought-after scientist, he considered offers from several universities and chose Hebrew University and ELSC as “the natural place for me.” As a Hebrew University alumnus, he appreciated the excellence of Hebrew University neuroscience. “I’ve always felt like I’ve shared a common language with the scientists here,” says Dr. London. “Hebrew University has always given me a feeling of inspiration.”

      Dr. London’s laboratory will continue to study how neurons communicate, transfer information and compute. “The results of breaking the genetic code have revolutionized the fields of biology and medicine,” said Dr. London, “and we’re only just starting to explore these consequences. We still have a way to go, of course, but I’m excited to be part of this.”

      Dr. London’s work is partially funded by a generous gift from AFHU board member Brindell Gottleib of Los Angeles. For further information about how you can help to support pioneering brain science research at ELSC, please contact AFHU’s national office or an office in your region


      Mysterious Pediatric Neurological Disease Traced to a Single Gene Error

      Scientists find that affected children’s cells are flooded with ribosomal RNA and are poisoned by it; the first time that an excess of ribosomal RNA has been linked to a disease in humans

      August 3, 2017 — In a new study published today in The American Journal of Human Genetics, a multinational team of researchers describes, for the first time, the biological basis of a severe neurological disorder in children.

      The extremely rare disorder is characterized by developmental regression and neurodegeneration. At first, the children lead normal lives and seem identical to their age-matched peers. However, beginning at around 3 to 6 years of age, the children display neurological deterioration, gradually losing motor, cognitive, and speech functions. Although the condition progresses slowly, most patients are completely dependent on their caretakers by 15-20 years of age.

      Researchers from the Hadassah Medical Center and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Medicine, working with colleagues from the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine and a multinational  research team, have now identified and studied seven children — from Canada, France, Israel, Russia, and the United States — who suffer from the disorder.

      The researchers found the same spontaneously occurring, non-inherited genetic change in a gene (named “UBTF”) responsible for ribosomal RNA formation in all the patients. Because of this small change, the patients’ cells are flooded with ribosomal RNA and are poisoned by it. Ribosomes are responsible for the translation and production of cell proteins and are made up of ribosomal proteins and of ribosomal RNA in a precise ratio.

      Prof. Orly Elpeleg

      The researchers found an identical error in the same gene in all the patients tested, representing a difference of one letter among the roughly 3 billion letters that make up human DNA. By finding the identical change in children who suffer from the identical clinical disease, the researchers determined that the altered gene is indeed the cause of the disease.

      Professor Orly Elpeleg, head of the Department of Genetics at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and a professor of Pediatrics at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine, led the multinational research. Professor Elpeleg credits the discovery to deep sequencing technology that Hadassah and the Hebrew University were among the first to introduce into clinical practice in the world and the first in Israel.

      Professor Elpeleg initially encountered the disease in a young girl who came to Hadassah: “Five years ago, I saw a patient who was healthy until the age of three, and then experienced a disturbance in her walking and motor function, speech, and cognition. Around that time, we had introduced the deep-sequencing technology for clinical use at Hadassah, which enabled us to read all the coding genetic material of a person within a couple of days, in order to identify genetic defects.” Since 2010, Hadassah has assembled the largest genetic mapping database in Israel, of about 2,400 patients.

      “Searching for similar genetic defects in this database, we found a 9-year-old boy who had been treated at Hadassah and now lives in Russia. The boy had been healthy until the age of five and then displayed neurological deterioration just like the girl I had diagnosed. Dr. Simon Edvardson, a pediatric neurologist at Hadassah, flew to Russia, examined the boy, took genetic samples from him and from his parents and confirmed that his illness was identical to that of the Israeli girl. We then knew we had identified a new disease that was not recognized in the medical literature,” said Professor Elpeleg.

      Comparing their data in a program called Gene Matcher, the researchers found several more children around the world who shared an identical genetic defect and the same course of disease.

      In order to understand the mechanism of the newly identified disease, the researchers collaborated with Dr. George-Lucian Moldovan at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, in the United States. Dr. Moldovan confirmed the disease mechanism: in the children’s cells, there is an excess RNA of the ribosome, which probably causes brain cells to be flooded and poisoned.

      “Our study links neuronal degeneration in childhood with altered rDNA chromatin status and rRNA metabolism. It is the first time that an excess of ribosomal RNA has been linked to a genetic disease in humans,” said Professor Elpeleg.

      While there is currently no cure for genetic diseases of this kind, the identification of the exact mutation may allow for the planning of therapies designed to silence the mutant gene. “Science may not be able to repair the gene, but now that our findings are published, it may be possible to make early identification of the disease and in the future find ways to prevent such a serious deterioration,” said Professor Elpeleg.

      # # #

      The research was supported by the NIH.

      Citation: Edvardson et al., Heterozygous De Novo UBTF Gain-of-Function Variant Is Associated with Neurodegeneration in Childhood, The American Journal of Human Genetics (2017), August 3, 2017, doi: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2017.07.002



      New Tool Could Lead to Earlier Diagnosis, Better Treatment of Parkinson’s

      Suaad Abd-Elhadi wins a Kaye Innovation Award for a new diagnostic tool that could pave the way for early diagnosis and improved treatment of one of the most common and debilitating neurodegenerative disorders

      July 5, 2017 — Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder in humans, after Alzheimer’s disease. It is typically characterized by changes in motor control such as tremors and shaking, but can also include non-motor symptoms, from the cognitive to the behavioral. An estimated seven to 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s disease, with medication costing approximately $2,500 a year, and therapeutic surgery costing up to $100,000 dollars, per patient.

      Making an accurate diagnosis of Parkinson’s, particularly in early stages and mild cases, is difficult, and there are currently no standard diagnostic tests other than clinical information provided by the patient and the findings of a neurological exam. One of the best hopes for improving diagnosis is to develop a reliable test for identifying a biomarker, i.e. a substance whose presence would indicate the presence of the disease.

      Now, Suaad Abd-Elhadi, a Ph.D. student in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Medicine, developed the lipid ELISA. This unique diagnostic tool could lead to earlier detection of Parkinson’s, along with better tracking of the disease’s progression and a patient’s response to therapy.

      How the diagnostic ELISA works
      ELISA stands for “enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay.” An assay is a procedure used in laboratory settings to assess the presence, amount, and activity of a target entity, such as a drug, cell or biochemical substance. ELISA is a common assay technique that involves targeting cellular secretions.

      In the case of the lipid ELISA, the cellular secretion of interest is a specific protein called the alpha-Synuclin protein. This protein serves as a convenient biomarker that is closely associated with the tissues where Parkinson’s disease can be detected, along with the neurological pathways the disease travels along, causing its characteristic symptoms.

      As a simple and highly sensitive diagnostic tool that can detect Parkinson’s biomarkers, the lipid ELISA could lead to a minimally invasive and cost-effective way to improve the lives of Parkinson’s patients. Recently, Abd-Elhadi has demonstrated a proof of concept to the high potential of this lipid-ELISA assay in differentiating healthy and Parkinson’s affected subjects. She is now in the process of analyzing a large cohort of samples, including moderate and severe Parkinson’s, and control cases, as part of a clinical study.

      Through Yissum, its technology transfer company, the Hebrew University holds granted patents on the technology and signed an agreement with Integra Holdings for further development and commercialization.

      2017 Kaye Innovation Award
      In recognition of her work, Suaad Abd-Elhadi was awarded the Kaye Innovation Award for 2017.

      The Kaye Innovation Awards at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have been awarded annually since 1994. Isaac Kaye of England, a prominent industrialist in the pharmaceutical industry, established the awards to encourage faculty, staff and students of the Hebrew University to develop innovative methods and inventions with good commercial potential, which will benefit the university and society. For more information about the 2017 Kaye Innovations Awards, visit

      Suaad Abd-Elhadi is a direct-track Ph.D. student at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine. She completed her B.S. in medical laboratory science at Hadassah Academic College. She was awarded a scholarship from the Liba and Manek Teich Endowment Fund for Doctoral Students and an Adrian Sucari Scholarship for Academic Excellence. She conducts her research under the supervision of Dr. Ronit Sharon and has published papers in Science Reports and Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry describing her research.


      Mrs. Lily Safra Dedicates New Home of Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences

      Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat, British Architect Lord Norman Foster, and more than 400 friends and supporters joined the gala celebration and naming ceremony of Israel’s largest neuroscience center

      July 2, 2017— More than 400 friends and supporters joined Mrs. Lily Safra as she dedicated the new home of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Edmond J. Safra Campus.

      (L-R) ELSC scientist Prof. Idan Segev, Member of the Council for Higher Education and Chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, Hebrew University Rector and President-elect Prof. Asher Cohen, and ELSC researcher Prof. Eilon Vaadia. (Credit: Bruno Charbit)

      The Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, and Lord Norman Foster, Founder and Executive Chairman of the British architectural firm Foster + Partners, which designed the new Center, were among the dignitaries attending the gala event.

      “I am thrilled to join in celebrating this defining moment for ELSC when such an extraordinary new building becomes home to a remarkable community of researchers and students,” said Mrs. Lily Safra. “Their multi-disciplinary study of the brain’s secrets will surely make a profound impact on how we treat disease and care for patients. I know that my husband Edmond would share my deep sense of pride that our names are associated with such pioneering work, and with such dedicated and inspiring people.”

      Mrs. Safra is a leading supporter of neuroscience research projects around the world, and Chairwoman of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, which pledged a lead donation of $50 Million of the Center’s $150 Million initial budget.

      (Credit: Michael Zekri)

      “The Hebrew University is grateful to Mrs. Lily Safra and the Edmond J. Safra Foundation for their leadership in this historic initiative to unlock the mysteries of the brain,” said Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson, President of the Hebrew University.  “ELSC is unique in the way it brings together theoretical and experimental researchers to develop pioneering approaches to brain science.”

      The 14,500 square meter Center is a premier setting that will encourage effective collaboration through interdisciplinary collaboration and interaction. Specialists in disciplines such as physics, computer science, psychology, neurobiology, and medicine will all work under one roof to achieve breakthroughs that improve the lives of patients suffering from illnesses of the brain.

      Directed by Professor Israel Nelken and Professor Adi Mizrahi, the Center will include state-of-the-art labs, classrooms, an innovative imaging center, and areas for biological and pre-clinical research. Significant emphasis was placed on constructing an environmentally friendly building with a focus on conserving energy and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.


      Simple Method Measures How Long Bacteria Can Wait Out Antibiotics

      The efficient classification of bacterial strains as tolerant, resistant, or persistent could help to guide treatment decisions, and could ultimately reduce the ever-growing risk of resistance

      June 21, 2017 — A growing number of pathogens are developing resistance to one or more antibiotics, threatening our ability to treat infectious diseases. Now, according to a study published in Biophysical Journal, a simple new method for measuring the time it takes to kill a bacterial population could improve the ability of clinicians to effectively treat antimicrobial-tolerant strains that are on the path to becoming resistant.

      “These findings allow measurement of tolerance, which has previously been largely overlooked in the clinical setting,” says senior study author Professor Nathalie Balaban, the Joseph and Sadie Danciger Professor of Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Routinely measuring tolerance could supply valuable information about the duration of antibiotic treatments, reducing the chance of both under- and over-treatment. Furthermore, data compiled from such measurements could give an estimate of how widespread the phenomenon of tolerance really is, which is currently a complete unknown.”

      According to the World Health Organization, antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health and is putting the achievements of modern medicine at risk. Due to selective pressure, pathogens acquire resistance through mutations that make the antibiotic less effective, for example, by interfering with the ability of a drug to bind to its target. Currently, clinicians determine which antibiotic and dose to prescribe by assessing resistance levels using a routine metric called minimum inhibitory concentration (MIC)—the minimal drug concentration required to prevent bacterial growth.

      Although resistant strains continue to grow despite exposure to high drug concentrations, tolerant strains can survive lethal concentrations of an antibiotic for a long period of time before succumbing to its effects. Tolerance is often associated with treatment failure and relapse, and it is considered a stepping stone toward the evolution of antibiotic resistance. But unlike resistance, tolerance is poorly understood and is currently not evaluated in healthcare settings.

      “The lack of a quantitative measure means that this aspect of the treatment relies largely on the experience of the individual physician or the community,” says first author Asher Brauner, a Ph.D. student in Balaban’s lab at the Hebrew University’s Racah Institute of Physics. “This can lead to treatment being either too short, increasing the risk of relapse and evolution of resistance, or much too long, unnecessarily causing side effects, a release of antibiotic waste into the environment, and additional costs.”

      To address this problem, Balaban and her team developed a tolerance metric called the minimum duration for killing 99% of the population (MDK99). The protocol, which can be performed manually or using an automated robotic system, involves exposing populations of approximately 100 bacteria in separate microwell plates to different concentrations of antibiotics for varied time periods while determining the presence or lack of survivors.

      View inside biofilm of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

      The researchers applied MDK99 to six Escherichia coli strains, which showed tolerance levels ranging from 2 to 23 hr under ampicillin treatment. MDK99 also facilitates measurements of a special case of tolerance known as time-dependent persistence—the presence of transiently dormant subpopulations of bacteria that are killed more slowly than the majority of the fast-growing population. Like other forms of tolerance, time-dependent persistence can lead to recurrent infections because the few surviving bacteria can quickly grow to replenish the entire population once antibiotic treatment stops.


      “A take-home message from this is that it is important to complete a course of antibiotic treatment as prescribed, even after the disappearance of the symptoms,” Balaban says. “Partial treatment gives tolerance and persistence mutations a selective advantage, and these, in turn, hasten the development of resistance.”

      In future studies, Balaban and her team will use MDK99 to study the evolution of tolerance in patients. Moreover, the ability to systematically determine the tolerance level of strains in the lab could facilitate research in the field. “If implemented in hospital clinical microbiology labs, MDK99 could enable the efficient classification of bacterial strains as tolerant, resistant, or persistent, helping to guide treatment decisions,” Balaban says. “In the end, understanding tolerance and finding a way to combat it could significantly reduce the ever-growing risk of resistance.”


      Scientists involved with this research are affiliated with The Racah Institute of Physics and The Center for NanoScience and NanoTechnology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and The Broad Institute of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

      FUNDING: This work was supported by the European Research Council (ERC) (grant 681819) and the Israel Science Foundation (ISF) (grant 492/15).

      CITATION: Biophysical Journal, Brauner et al.: “An Experimental Framework for Quantifying Bacterial Tolerance” / doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2017.05.014



      Hebrew University to Dedicate New Home of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC)

      Philanthropist Mrs. Lily Safra, Architect Lord Norman Foster, and more than 400 people from Israel and abroad to attend the gala celebration and naming ceremony of Israel’s largest neuroscience center

      June 6, 2017 — The Hebrew University of Jerusalem will dedicate the new home of The Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) in Jerusalem on June 13, 2017. More than 400 people from Israel and abroad will attend the gala celebration and naming ceremony of the largest neuroscience center in Israel and one of the most ambitious in the world.

      Participating in the event will be Mrs. Lily Safra, a leading supporter of neuroscience research projects around the world, and Chairwoman of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, which pledged a lead donation of $50 million of the Center’s $150 million initial budget.

      “I am truly thrilled to join in celebrating this defining moment for ELSC when such an extraordinary new building becomes home to a remarkable community of researchers and students,” said Mrs. Lily Safra. “Their multi-disciplinary study of the brain’s secrets will surely make a profound impact on how we treat disease and care for patients. I know that my husband Edmond would share my deep sense of pride that our names are associated with such pioneering work, and with such dedicated and inspiring people.”

      The Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences is at the forefront of the revolution in neuroscience research. Harnessing the extraordinary opportunities created by advances in technology and medicine, ELSC is shaping the next generation of researchers to advance the brain sciences and transform the treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders.

      “ELSC is unique in the way it brings together theoretical and experimental researchers to develop pioneering approaches to brain science,” said Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson, President of the Hebrew University. “The Hebrew University is grateful to Mrs. Lily Safra and the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation for their leadership in this historic initiative to unlock the mysteries of the brain.”

      Lord Norman Foster, the award-winning Founder and Executive Chairman of the British architectural firm Foster + Partners, which designed the new center, will participate in the gala event.

      “The project for the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences is much like a city in microcosm, with some of the same challenges: how do we best create a sense of community, share knowledge, bring people together, and support collective endeavors towards common goals? The building works flexibly, accommodating a diverse range of requirements from customizable, individual workstations to a central courtyard that is the social heart, breaking the traditional mold of learning and making the process more collaborative. It is a celebration of the brain, and of the vital work that is carried out by the researchers here,” said Lord Foster.

      The 14,500 square meter center will include state-of-the-art labs, classrooms, an innovative imaging center, and areas for biological and pre-clinical research. Significant emphasis was placed on constructing an environmentally-friendly building with a focus on conserving energy and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

      Professor Israel Nelken, Co-Director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences, and the Milton z”l and Brindell Gottlieb Professor of Brain Science, said: “At the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences, scientists follow an interdisciplinary agenda to uncover the causal links between genes, neurons, and circuits from which cognition and behavior emerge, paving the way to a wide spectrum of future applications, from clever gadgets that improve quality of life to better health care.”

      ELSC scientists have already paved a way towards a fundamental understanding of brain processes in health and disease. At the Lab for Understanding Neurons, Professor Idan Segev, the David & Inez Myers Professor in Computational Neuroscience, uses mathematical tools to digitally reconstruct a whole piece of cortical circuits using powerful computers. Using these models his team recently discovered rich structures or connectivity previously unknown. These “hidden” circuit structures pose constraints on how sensory information is processed in the neocortex. Professor Merav Ahissar, the Joseph H. and Belle Braun Professor of Psychology, with a longstanding interest in studying dyslexia, recently found that a central problem for dyslexics is forming prediction, a fundamental aspect of brain computing that governs our behaviors.

      ELSC’s young generation of researchers is also studying the brain at unprecedented resolutions. Dr. Ami Citri, for example, received the prestigious $100,000 Adelis Brain Research Award for his outstanding work in the field of experience-dependent plasticity and its impact on diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders. Most projects are led by ELSC’s Ph.D. students, an elite group of young scholars.

      About the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences 
      ELSC’s mission is to achieve a comprehensive understanding of brain mechanisms by developing a thriving interface between theoretical and experimental neuroscience. By building bridges across disciplines—combining high-resolution studies of local neuronal circuits (from genes to neurons and synapses) with a global theory of the brain’s computational principles—ELSC aims to be at the forefront of neuroscience research worldwide. ELSC was founded with the generous support of the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation, which supports hundreds of organizations in more than 40 countries around the world. For more information, please visit


      Researchers Get Head Start on Gene That Protects the Brain from Epilepsy

      Increased levels of a micro-RNA could have a protective effect explaining why identical stressors trigger seizures in some people but not in others.

      June 5, 2017 — On December 16, 1997, hundreds of Japanese children were brought to a hospital suffering from epilepsy-like seizures. They all had one thing in common: they had been watching an episode of the Pokémon TV show when their symptoms began. Doctors determined that their symptoms were triggered by five seconds of intensely bright flashing lights on the popular TV program. But why did the lights affect a few hundred children while thousands of other viewers were unharmed?

      In new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers headed by Professor Hermona Soreq at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem sought to answer this question. Drawing on her previous research, Professor Soreq, the Charlotte Slesinger Professor of Molecular Neuroscience at the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences and the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, hypothesized that healthy brains may be protected from epileptic seizures by rapidly produced molecules called short RNAs, or microRNAs (miRs). MicroRNAs are a recently discovered class of non-coding RNAs that can prevent genes from expressing particular proteins.

      To test this idea, Soreq and her colleagues at the Hebrew University developed a transgenic model producing unusually high amounts of one micro-RNA called miR-211, which the researchers predicted was involved. The levels of this molecule could be gradually lowered by administering the antibiotic Doxycycline, enabling tests of its potency to avoid epilepsy.

      Working with colleagues at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and Dalhousie University in Canada, they suppressed excess miR-211 production in the engineered models to the levels found in normal brains. Within four days, this caused the models to display electrically-recorded epilepsy and hypersensitivity to epilepsy-inducing compounds. “Dynamic changes in the amount of miR-211 in the forebrains of these models shifted the threshold for spontaneous and pharmacologically induced seizures, alongside changes in the cholinergic pathway genes,” said Professor Soreq.

      These findings indicated that mir-211 plays a beneficial role in protecting the brain from epileptic seizures in the engineered models.

      Noting that miR-211 is known to be elevated in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients who are at high risk for epilepsy, the researchers suspect that in human brains as well, elevated miR-211 may act as a protective mechanism to reduce the risk of epileptic seizures.

      “It is important to discover how only some people’s brains present a susceptibility to seizures, while others do not, even when subjected to these same stressors,” said Professor Soreq. In searching for the physiological mechanisms that allow some people’s brains to avoid epilepsy, we found that increased levels of micro-RNA 211 could have a protective effect.”

      According to the researchers, recognizing the importance of miR-211 could open new avenues for diagnosing and interfering with epilepsy. By understanding how miR-211 affects seizure thresholds, scientists could potentially develop therapeutics that lead to greater miR-211–production.

      Participating researchers are affiliated with the following institutions: The Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences and The Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel; Department of Physiology and Cell Biology and Department of Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; and Department of Medical Neuroscience, Dalhousie University, Canada. The authors thank the Netherlands Brain Bank for human-derived samples.


      Research Breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and other Neurodegenerative Diseases

      Every day at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU), researchers are working to address the causes of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Signs and symptoms can include memory loss, disorientation, and mental confusion; however, HU researchers have discovered ways to reduce the potential risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia by studying the way in which food affects brain health.

      Hebrew University scientists are collaborating every day to explore the brain’s complexities, cure neurological diseases faster, and bring life-changing innovations to the world. American Friends of the Hebrew University (AFHU) supports these efforts because we believe science fuels a brighter future.

      Knowledge moves us…to discover, to grow, and to advance humanity.

      Explore what science for the global good looks like.

      One example of how Hebrew University researchers are revolutionizing neuroscience is mapping brains of the blind.

      Studying the brain activity of blind people, scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are challenging the standard view of how the human brain specializes to perform different kinds of tasks and shedding new light on how our brains can adapt to the rapid cultural and technological changes of the 21st century.

      The accepted view in previous decades was that the brain is divided into distinct regions mainly by the sensory input that activates them, such as the visual cortex for sight and the auditory cortex for sound. Within these large regions, sub-regions have been defined which are specialized for specific tasks such as the “visual word form area,” a functional brain region believed to identify words and letters from shape images even before they are associated with sounds or meanings. Similarly, there is another area that specializes in number symbols.

      However, a series of studies at Hebrew University’s Amedi Lab for Brain and Multisensory Research challenges this view using unique tools known as Sensory Substitution Devices (SSDs).

      SSDs take information from one sense and present it to another, for example enabling blind people to “see” by using other senses such as touching or hearing. By using a smartphone or webcam to translate a visual image into a distinct soundscape, SSDs enable blind users to create a mental image of objects, such as their physical dimensions and color. With intense training, blind users can even “read” letters by identifying their distinct soundscape.

      “These devices can help the blind in their everyday life,” explains Professor Amir Amedi, “but they also open unique research opportunities by letting us see what happens in brain regions normally associated with one sense when the relevant information comes from another.”


      Hebrew University’s Dr. Ami Citri Wins Adelis Brain Research Award

      Dr. Ami Citri of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences received the $100,000 Adelis Brain Research Award for outstanding work in the field of experience-dependent plasticity in the brain and its impact on diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders and addiction. òîé öéúøéThe Citri lab develops unique multi-disciplinary approaches to studying the encoding of experiences in the brain, and has developed a special system to study the basis of selective attention, which was recognized by the Adelis Award.

      The Adelis Award is aimed at recognizing and supporting research in Israel which will significantly advance the knowledge and understanding of the brain in health and pathologies. Candidates were reviewed and the winners were selected by a committee of distinguished experts in brain research together with prominent representatives of the public.

      The Adelis Brain Research Award is one of two major neuroscience prizes were awarded during the BrainTech 2015 Conference in Tel Aviv to promising researchers from Israel and the U.S., marking IBT’s commitment to excellence in neuroscience research. The prizes acknowledge the work of neuroscientists and mathematicians whose research advance our understanding of the human brain as well as solutions, treatments, and cures for various brain-related ailments.

      The conference was organized by Israel’s brain initiative, Israel Brain Technologies, a non-profit organization whose mission is to advance Israel’s neurotechnology industry by accelerating neuro-innovation and fostering international collaboration. BrainTech 2015 is a global conference to explore ways in which brain technology will change the human landscape. The conference brings together thought-leaders from around the world to advance neuroscience and neurotechnology – entrepreneurs, neuroscientists, clinicians, investors, startups, multinationals and policymakers and joins stakeholders from around the world to support the entire lifecycle of innovation in brain technologies.

      “Brain-related illness such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, brain trauma and others know no borders, and neither can their cures,” added Dr. Rafi Gidron, Chairman of Israel Brain Technologies. “By the same token, creativity, invention, innovation, and imagination also know no borders and therefore, initiatives seeking the next big thing in brain technology should by definition be global endeavors.”

      President Shimon Peres, whose vision of turning Israel into a worldwide braintech hub – from “Startup Nation” to “Brain Nation” – inspired the creation of IBT, laid out his vision for the future of brain technology during a “fireside chat” at the conference. “We have in Israel right now over a hundred companies that are dealing with the brain, we have brain faculties in every university,” said President Peres. “This is only the beginning. We are a startup in the brain.”

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