The Center for Brain and Cognition (CBC) at the University of California, San Diego, under the directorship of V.S. Ramachandran, conducts research on the neural basis of perception, cognition, language, attention and memory: a field called "cognitive neuroscience" or "behavioral neurology." An additional focus is on neuro-rehabilitation.
The Center has two distinct agendasa practical one and a theoretical one. The practical goal is to help develop new therapeutic approaches for the treatment of neurological and psychiatric patients, e.g., chronic pain, stroke, anorexia and childhood autism. The theoretical agenda is to understand the neural basis of human behavior: the question of how the activity of the human braina lump of jelly you can hold in your hand, composed of millions of tiny wisps of protoplasm gives rise to all the richness of our conscious experience.
It is ironic that although we now have a vast amount of factual information about the brain, even the most basic questions about the human mind remain unanswered. Why do we laugh, i.e., make a rhythmic sound and bob our heads in certain situations? Why do we cry? Why does a salty liquid flow down our cheeks when sad? How does the human brain create and respond to art? Why do we enjoy music? What causes us to dance? What makes some of us so amazingly creative in mathematics, science, and poetry? How are metaphors represented in the brain? What is "body image" and why does it get distorted in anorexia nervosa? How did language evolve? Then there are more basic questions. How do we see color? Why can we pay attention to only one thing at a time? How do we recognize faces so effortlessly?
Neuroscientists and psychologists have, in the past, shied away from such questions, but our center has become well known for tackling questions such as these experimentally, questions that have traditionally been the preoccupation of philosophers. Already, there is talk in the literature and in the news media about the emergence of such new disciplines as "neuroethics," "neurotheology," "neuroeconomics," "neuroaesthetics," and "neuroepistemology," which would have been unheard of even a decade ago. Some of these new disciplines may hold the key to a treasury of insights into the neural basis of human nature.
For example, synesthesia, once considered an obscure condition, is now part of mainstream research in cognition and neuroscience, thanks in part to experiments performed at CBC by Ed Hubbard, David Brang and Ramachandran.
On the practical clinical side, the center was the first to show that visual feedback (conveyed through viewing a reflection of one's own painful body part) can powerfully reduce chronic pain, including phantom limb pain and chronic (complex) regional pain syndrome caused by nerve or tissue injury, maladies traditionally considered incurable even with surgery and powerful, side-effect-laden drugs. The technique even provides some relief from paralysis resulting from stroke. Remarkably, pain from osteo-arthritis has been shown to diminish substantially with this sort of visual feedback therapy. Most of these therapies have been validated in placebo-controlled clinical trials. But more research is needed to establish why some patients are helped more than others.
The potential use of visual feedback in treating RSD (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome) was first proposed by CBC researchers in 1996 (Ramachandran's Decade of the Brain Symposium, UCSD) and for stroke in 1994. Evidence for the utility of the technique has been established in several clinical trials conducted since that time (McCabe, et al 2003; Cacchio, et al 2009; Sato, et al 2010)
The center has three laboratories: the Brain and Perception Laboratory (headed by VS Ramachandran), whose focus is on neurological disorders as well as normal visual perception. Second: the Attention and Perception Laboratory headed by Professor Hal Pashler. Third: the Integrative Neuroscience Program headed by Professor John Smythies. The board of advisors currently includes Dr. Ursula Bellugi (Brain plasticity and language development), Professor Diana Deutsch (Auditory function and dysfunction), Professor Tim Rickard (Functional imaging and attention) and in the past included the late Professor Francis Crick. The center also works in collaboration with INC (Institute for Neural Computation), CARTA (Center for Research and Teaching in Anthropogeny ) the UCSD Radiology Department (Dr. Roland Lee and Dr. Mingxiong Huang) and the Salk Institute (where Ramachandran was appointed adjunct professor in 1995).
The center has a venerable history, having undergone a name change (under the directorship of the late Professor David Swinney) from CHIP (Center for Human Information Processing) to its current name in 1997. Prior to that CHIP had on its faculty Dave Rumelhart , Geoffrey Hinton , and Jay McLelland, widely credited with having started the "neural network revolution " under the benevolent eye of George Mandler and Don Norman. The name change was introduced to reflect the new emphasis of CHIP/CBC on behavioral neurology and neuroscience in addition to its earlier agenda: computational and theoretical approaches to neuroscience.
Today, CBC (with administrative links to Psychology) is known for its fourfold emphasis on neurology, basic cognition, theoretical modeling and clinical application.