AAAS: Brains behind the biggest and the best

February 7, 2003

Stephen Phillips starts a four-page special on the AAAS with a profile of its head

Being president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the umbrella organisation for US science faculties, sounds a little like being in the eye of a storm. "It's not that demanding," says Floyd Bloom, the current holder of that honour and chairman of the neuropharmacology department at San Diego's Scripps Research Institute. The demanding part comes the following year, when the president customarily steps up to become chairman, presiding over AAAS board meetings and serving as its public spokesman.

Still, it's hardly a sabbatical. Bloom will be at full stretch next week, glad-handing delegates in Denver on February 13-18 at the association's annual meeting, the world's largest gathering of cross-disciplinary scientists. For good measure, he'll deliver the opening plenary lecture and lead a seminar on the promising field of neuroinformatics, one of his academic interests.

Neuroinformatics has brain researchers such as Bloom all abuzz. Applying the number-crunching power of information technology to data gleaned from cutting-edge studies of the chemical and biological bases of brain activity opens up previously undreamed-of avenues of inquiry, allowing scientists to pose questions that would have been impossible to ask with only laborious manual calculation at their disposal.

"There's so much information that no one can possibly read it - we need ways that will cut across individual work, reorganise findings and ask questions of data that the original researchers weren't ready to ask," Bloom says. "This would do for neuroscience what bioinformatics has done for genomics."

Bloom has been anticipating the potential of computers to interpolate and extrapolate data for some time. Harnessing techniques from molecular biology, he and his team at Scripps have been mapping the functions of different genes in the brain in recent years, aiming to gather "data that would be sufficiently robust that we could use neuroinformatics technology to sort it out".

This is a natural extension of Bloom's lifelong preoccupation with understanding the chemical basis of brain function during a career that has spanned Yale University, the National Institutes of Mental Health neuropharmacology lab in Washington DC and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, before he moved to nearby Scripps in 1983.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he conducted landmark studies of the locus ceruleus that broke important new ground in mapping the brain's chemical pathways.

More recently, Bloom and his researchers put that knowledge to work analysing the chemical basis of alcoholism and drug addiction, and the neurological impact of substance abuse.

"In awake animals, the locus ceruleus helps sort out features in their environment and discern novel stimuli. Even very low doses of alcohol (impair this)," he explains.

However, Bloom's academic career got off to a somewhat inauspicious start.

A distinguished career in neuroscience hardly seemed on the cards when he turned in his answers to an aptitude test at high school. His skills marked him out more for a career in the literary pursuits of journalism, publishing or advertisement copywriting. The careers adviser counselled him to steer clear of the hard sciences.

Fortunately for brain research, Bloom didn't heed this advice, deferring instead to his father's wish that he at least get a medical degree, then weigh up his options.

The family business in Minneapolis was a pharmacy and Bloom grew up around doctors. Still, he had no burning desire to become one. Nevertheless, he dutifully proceeded to Southern Methodist University in 1954 to start his pre-medicine studies. It was at the Dallas, Texas, campus that he first displayed a flair for organic and inorganic chemistry. The professor of organic chemistry there soon became Bloom's mentor, helping his prodigy land a place at Washington University Medical School in St Louis.

But Bloom showed no special aptitude for research and wanted to be an obstetrician. It took a summer internship at physiology professor Gordon Schoeplfe's laboratory but he finally got the bug, and following a year's residency at St Louis's Barnes Hospital, he embarked on his research career.

Then again, perhaps there was a grain of truth in that early advice, after all. In 1995, after a lively extracurricular career, including stints serving on the AAAS's board of directors during the 1980s, Bloom was named editor-in-chief of Science, the association's pre-eminent interdisciplinary journal.

On his watch until 2000, the journal published details of the breakthrough creation of a new state of matter by University of Colorado researchers.

Ratification of the Bose-Einstein Condensation theorem that at a sufficiently low temperature some atoms will coalesce into a single super-atom opens up exciting possibilities in nanotechnology, including the creation of functional materials, devices and systems at the molecular level. Other highlights of his tenure included the discovery of signs of fossilised life on Mars and new stem-cell developments.

Such a role was fitting for Bloom, who has made a career out of borrowing techniques from other disciplines to enrich his own research. "When I started doing neuroscience, no such word existed," he recalls.

"Neuroanatomy, chemistry and physiology specialists went to their own meetings. There weren't any common goals or language."

Cross-fertilisation of ideas allowed Bloom and other researchers to elaborate a "biological basis for behaviour" and to found brain science as it is now recognised. "Today young people learn all these skills," he adds.

"With shared terminology, concepts (and) hypotheses, almost every discovery is related to something else and you have an exciting and palpably moving part of scientific research."

Looking ahead, another field he feels cross-disciplinary collaboration would be a boon in is systems biology, where, for instance, researchers look at the brain systems that regulate functions such as appetite, attention or even heartbeat.

However, Bloom is concerned about the capacity of the US healthcare system to ever use the breakthroughs that might come from such paradigmatic shifts, to help patients owing to problems with private health insurers, the crippling cost of often frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits faced by doctors and an acute shortage of nurses.

"I'm very disturbed by the fact that the medical system itself is barely able to go from day to day," he says.

While shrinking from specific policy prescriptions, Bloom's suggestion is that major players in biomedical research and practice get around the table with public health officials to try to hammer out a more satisfactory way to administer healthcare in America.

Meanwhile, he is mulling over making this a theme of his AAAS speech. He thinks it will strike a chord with his listeners. "Much of what they are hoping to discover requires an intact and vital healthcare system that can take advantage of downstream discoveries," he says.

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