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New Technologies Changing Views of the Brain, Alum Tells F&M Crowd

As new technologies prompt new questions for scientists, our understanding of the brain is fundamentally changing, according to Franklin & Marshall alumnus Alan Leshner, a psychology professor and presidential appointee at the National Science Board.

"It's changing our views about people who have mental illness, particularly severe mental illness, and addiction," Leshner, a 1965 graduate and parent of a 1999 graduate told the F&M community Thursday.

Leshner spoke about "Neuroscience, the Public and Public Policy" at the College's Common Hour, held every Thursday during the academic year. The event brings together members of the community for culturally and intellectually enriching discussions and experiences. 

  • Common Hour Alan Leshner
  • Franklin & Marshall College alumnus Alan Leshner, a psychology professor and presidential appointee at the National Science Board, spoke about "Neuroscience, the Public and Public Policy" at F&M's Common Hour, held every Thursday during the academic year. The event brings together members of the community for culturally and intellectually enriching discussions and experiences. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

One particular technology, brain imaging, has fostered a better understanding of the mind, Leshner said. Brain imaging maps cognitive activities and measures the amount of tissue in the organ.

For example, Leshner said, the digital images show that someone suffering from schizophrenia has more brain tissue than a non-schizophrenic. In another example, he explained that when a person is asked to count numbers, the image of the brain is dull, showing less activity, but when a person is asked to do a cognitive task, their frontal lobe "lights up" with activity.

"Incremental advances are accelerating and new technologies are enabling quantum jumps in understanding," Leshner said.

Since 2001, Leshner has served as CEO of the world's largest scientific and engineering society, the 165-year-old American Association for the Advancement of Science. He also is executive publisher of the journal Science.

Leshner said the technology and the new understanding it has helped bring to brain studies has shattered old notions about psychology and mental illness. "Mental illnesses are diseases of the brain," Leshner said. "This was the most liberating discovery to the families of the mentally ill."

F&M First-Year Susan Spina, who is considering music or animal behavior as a major, appreciated Leshner's discussion about mental illness. She said she had friends in high school who suffered from mental disorders, and was distressed that she couldn't help them.

"Knowing that there's nothing you could do to change that is reassuring," Spina said. "That the scientific community also agrees is comforting."

Despite the advances in neurosciences, Leshner said the public does not understand and, in some cases, feels threatened by the discoveries. To address this, he calls for a "Glocal" -- go local -- approach, which involves scientists engaging the public to learn their concerns and priorities and working with them on understanding the new developments in science.

"Actually go out and interact with the public in a different way," Leshner said. "To go from communicating at the public to communicating with the public."

Junior Carlton Christie, a biochemistry and neuroscience major, agreed with that approach. "I found his 'Glocal" argument very intriguing," Christie said. "It's something I'm going to incorporate in my professional career."

After receiving an undergraduate degree in psychology from F&M, Leshner earned an M.S. in physiological psychology from Rutgers University in 1967, and a Ph.D. in the same field from Rutgers in 1969.

Leshner spent 10 years teaching psychology at Bucknell University, then served various senior positions at the National Science Foundation, focused on basic research in the biological, behavioral and social sciences, science policy and science education.