A Next Step in the Evolution of Brain Science at UT Southwestern

In 2019, Dr. William T. Dauer joined the UT Southwestern faculty as the inaugural Director of the O’Donnell Brain Institute (OBI) with a bold vision. His plan was to lead the institution into the future of brain science through three major pillars: building the science; translating that science into patient care; and bringing it in the most efficient way to patients in multidisciplinary care settings. Dr. Dauer believes the time is right for bringing such a transformative vision to life at UT Southwestern by maximizing the resources of the Human Genome Project and the Human Connectome Project.

Photo of Dr. William T. Dauer on the campus of UT Southwestern.

“We are at a point now in the evolution of brain science where we are reaping the benefits of several decades of investment.”

Dr. William T. Dauer

“The ‘90s was the decade of the brain and created a lot of momentum, beginning with the government’s launch of the Human Genome Project (HGP), an international collaborative research program with a goal to complete the mapping and understanding of all human genes,” said Dr. Dauer

The HGP created an explosion of interest about the root causes of all diseases by unlocking the genetic code and determining which genes relate to which diseases. Having access to genetic information set the stage for new discoveries in brain science.

The next big push came in 2010 when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the Human Connectome Project (HCP), which has become one of the most exciting areas of rapid progress in biomedical research. A connectome, also referred to as a “brain map,” is a comprehensive diagram of neural connections in the brain. Like the Human Genome Project, the Human Connectome Project represents an essential foundation for basic and applied neurobiological research.

Tapping Into the Human Connectome Project

The Human Connectome Project is an ambitious effort for the U.S. scientific field to develop and share information through the Connectome Coordination Facility, which maintains a central data repository for public research data. The facility accelerates research and offers advice to the research community regarding data collection strategies and harmonization. By understanding wiring patterns in the brain within and across individuals, researchers will be able to decipher the electrical signals that generate human thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The connectome will also enable researchers to explore how genes influence the brain’s connections.

“If we think of the brain as a circuit board, we understand how all those parts are laid out and how the information is processed, which allows the human body to think and move in the ways that it does,” said Dr. Dauer. “Thanks to advances in technology, we can change people’s lives by altering the electrical flow of the messages in the brain, which is truly remarkable. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We are reaching a level of understanding that we could not have imagined just 10 years ago.”

Brain mapping gives scientists a greater understanding of the roots of human neurological disorders including schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, and other conditions that may arise from abnormal “wiring” during brain development. This knowledge should lead to better ways to detect, treat, and prevent devastating brain disorders that rob people of their lives.

“It is enormously exciting, as a scientist and as a physician, to be in an environment that allows such innovation.”

Dr. William T. Dauer

Much remains to be discovered about the brain for scientists to understand how the human mind works. The brain controls nearly every aspect of the body, ranging from physiological functions to cognitive abilities, and functions by sending and receiving signals via neurons to different parts of the body. According to many estimates, the brain contains nearly 100 billion neurons that fire in continuous patterns of activity. At UT Southwestern, it is the culmination of years of innovation that allows scientists to understand the workings of the brain and gives them the ability to manipulate it.

“Innovation is a critical part of the OBI vision, as well as developing those ideas that are off the cutting edge, including novel ways to change the brain and novel ways to manipulate genes,” said Dr. Dauer.

Dr. Dauer’s Personal Passion for Treating Brain Illness

Hear more from Dr. Dauer during The Heritage Society’s 25th Anniversary virtual celebration, where he shares his personal story behind his passion for driving a deeper understanding of brain illnesses and providing empathetic care to patients.

Learn more about the Human Connectome Project