Home|Third Culture|Digerati|Reality Club

A Talk with Steven Rose

JB: How did you get started?

STEVEN ROSE: I started as a school kid doing chemistry in the back yard, and went to university to study chemistry where I discovered that there was this incredibly exciting area called biochemistry, and graduated as a biochemist in Cambridge in the late 50s. This was a time that Watson and Crick had done their stuff, and Fred Sanger had got the first of his two Nobel Prizes, and the department was awash with champagne. I was pretty arrogant, and so I decided that all the interesting biochemical and genetic questions have been answered, and the next frontier is the brain. So I went off and did graduate study at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and then a postdoc in neuroscience at Oxford, and eventually set up my own laboratory at the Open University, where I've been these past 30 years.

The crucial thing in any sort of science is to find a reliable model that you can study. One of my old advisers, Hans Krebs, the great biochemist, said for any problem in science God has created the right organism to study it. For me it turned out that the right organism for studying brain and memory was the chick because day-old chicks have this tremendous capacity to learn very fast about their environment. Back in the 70s I did a series of experiments on imprinting in chicks along with Patrick Bateson and Gabriel Horn, which set a sort of standard in the field for how you can study these things.

More recently I moved on to a simpler model. When you give a chick a small bright object, like a little bead, to peck, they will peck at it spontaneously; they're discovering their environment, what's good food, what's bad food, and so on. If you make the bead taste bitter, they'll peck it once, they'll really dislike it, shaking their heads and wiping their beaks, and they won't peck at a bead like that afterwards. With one trial, ten seconds, this animal has learned something which lasts a good chunk of its lifetime.

So what's going on in the brain under those circumstances? To study that, you need to pull together all the available techniques to study electrical properties, cellular properties, molecular properties, do the connections in the brain change, can we actually study those by actually looking at them in a microscope? Can we identify the molecules involved in the change, and so on.

Now we're at the point where we know pretty well the molecular cascade of processes that go on when the chick learns this task; what it comes down to in the end is that the chick makes a set of new proteins which stick together the connections between the cells, the synapses, in some new configuration. We've identified this class of proteins, we're analyzing their structures in a variety of ways. It has been an intellectual pursuit of mine for 30 years and its greatly fascinating.

I always argued that this was a pursuit which was about pure science, and there wasn't going to be a payoff, as it were, Except that we would learn more about ourselves and how we work. But what's happened in the last 3 or 4 years is something really interesting, because it turns out that among the molecules which were involved in this key process of putting memories together are the substances which get disordered in Alzheimer's Disease.