Princeton prof. sizes up brains

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PRINCETON, N.J. — Molecular biology professor Sam Wang’s 15 minutes in the spotlight came in the months leading up to the presidential election. His launch of a Web site that analyzed election surveys garnered national attention as one of the best predictors of what the election might hold.

But in the end, his analysis predicted John Kerry would win.

He might not have accurately predicted what Americans were thinking, but in his primary area of research he seeks to understand how the brain works.

In doing so, he is hoping to answer some of the most fundamental questions about life, learning, memory and intelligence.

Wang and his lab group of eight students spend their days studying the brains of mammals in Guyot Hall. They study their design and how that affects intelligence.

“We’re interested in how brains learn and change in response to experiences in the world,” he said.

In trying to understand intelligence, Wang is grappling with how animals form and store memories.

His idea is based on nerve cell connections in junctions called synapses, which have a strength that can change over time.

A brain can receive thousands of inputs in these synapses at once, which form a complex network within the brain.

“If you can take tools of network analysis and how networks learn and store information, [you can] use those ideas to try to understand brain architecture,” Wang said.

Wang is attempting to use theoretical approaches to understand brain architecture and inner workings.

Recently, he has made some important discoveries in which he compared the human brain structure to the avian brain.

Humans brains are 80 percent cortex, the largest percentage among all organisms, Wang said.

“In mammals, the thing that seems to be a hallmark of behavioral complexity and social complexity is having a big cortex. What we found is that birds don’t have a cortex, but they have a similar structure in their forebrain,” he said.

In arriving at his conclusions, Wang studied brains of many birds including crows, parrots, ducks and quail, which led him to realize there is as much variation among birds’ brain structures as there is in mammals’.

“We discovered something deep about what it is that makes the brain intelligent in a bird that in some sense is shared in structure with mammals. So one thing that would be really interesting would be to start thinking about how you would extend that to even other animals,” Wang said.

Attempting to compare intelligence across species raises the question of how humans have defined intelligence.

Wang said he dreams that his research will one day become part of the science curriculum.

“I know it sounds a little bit corny, but on some level that’s a measure of whether you really discovered something,” he said.