As a field, neuroscience asks big questions about how the brain works — but answering those big questions typically necessitates many smaller inquiries.
For Dr. Aaron Gruber, Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge’s Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience, these inquiries are key to unlocking the mysteries of the brain.
“Every neuroscientist would love to discover how the brain works, but that is a huge problem,” Dr. Gruber notes. “You need to pick a starting point on a tractable sub-problem.”
Dr. Gruber’s starting point is to understand how neural systems impact decision-making. Although he began his academic journey in chemical engineering, he now focuses on reinforcement learning and knowledge synthesis. He investigates the disruption of dopamine signalling, which he says is at the crux of several neuropsychiatric disorders, including addiction, depression and schizophrenia.
At the moment, his research centres on addictions like gambling and substance abuse, and specifically on what motivates people to do seemingly irrational things that can lead to these addictions.
“The first step in addressing the problem is to understand what’s going on in the brain — to understand the nuts and bolts under the hood,” Dr. Gruber explains. “Once we understand how it works, we’ll be able to use the least-invasive tools to address neuropsychiatric disorders.”
With this knowledge, he envisions a future where early interventions and personalized medicine prevent individuals from falling into crises from which interventions may take years to have an effect.
Crossing discipline boundaries
While answering these specific questions will help to better understand the brain, to get there, Dr. Gruber asserts, “We’re going to have to get more interdisciplinary.”
This approach leverages powerful tools from traditionally separate disciplines, and includes using imaging and molecular or genetic tools to collect rich datasets, and advanced computational techniques, such as machine learning, to analyze data.
“As experimental techniques become more sophisticated and we are able to monitor more processes,” he notes, “we will increasingly need to rely on computer algorithms to make sense of the data.”
Dr. Gruber is confident the research landscape in Alberta has potential to develop such multidisciplinary projects. “As a province, we have the people to do this. I think it’s a matter of getting people together from engineering, life sciences and the medical community.”
This is where the contribution and value of Campus Alberta Neuroscience (CAN) is greatest, as its central philosophy is bringing together people from a variety of disciplines and perspectives to advance science.
Dr. Gruber augments CAN by bringing his enthusiasm for a multidisciplinary approach to his roles on the Steering Committee and as Chair of this year’s Symposium Scientific Program Committee.
Preparing future scientists
Dr. Gruber also advocates for cross-discipline education and training, and is a member of the committee designing CAN’s future multidisciplinary initiatives.
“I’m really keen to bring in medical residents, particularly some of the psychiatric residents, to get them involved in training and research,” he explains. “This enables researchers to see the clinical side, and clinicians to tap into what we know on the basic sciences side.”
That emphasis furthers Dr. Gruber’s efforts to teach and prepare the next generation of scientists. On top of his research and regular teaching, he is also an instructor at the annual Introductory Workshop on Computational Methods in Neuroscience, a program hosted at the University of Lethbridge for trainees from across Alberta.
At the end of the day, Dr. Gruber aims to make a positive contribution to discovering how the brain works, not only by adding to the overall body of knowledge to strengthen the foundation for translational work, but also by pushing students and trainees to think critically as scientists and citizens.