Probing the mind: Researchers at the Sagol Neuroscience Center hope to shed light on brain disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. The brain is the most complex organ in the human body, ensuring that we breathe, see, speak, think, feel, smell, and walk — every second of the day.

Any malfunction of the brain has grave consequences.

Yet much of the brain’s workings remain a mystery, making brain research one of the most exciting – and potentially rewarding – areas of study. The new Joseph Sagol Neuroscience Center, inaugurated on Friday at Tel Aviv’s Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, aims to bring together scientists and doctors from inside and outside the hospital to focus on brain research. The ultimate goal: to prevent and even cure brain disorders, such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

“There is a feeling among clinicians and physicians that the brain is the final frontier,” says Professor Anat Biegon, the center’s director, who seems delighted with her new position, laughing heartily and frequently throughout the interview with Israel21c.

Biegon, who was born in Poland and came to Israel with her family at the age of three, has been involved in brain research since the late 1970s in both academia and industry. She was a researcher at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science and, more recently, at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, where she retains the part-time position of senior scientist. She also served, for seven years, as vice president of research and development at the Israeli pharmaceutical company Pharmos.

“There have been no major breakthroughs in psychiatric and neurological diseases since the 1950s when drugs for depression and schizophrenia were discovered,” says Biegon. “Subsequent developments have been based on those same discoveries. There hasn’t been anything really revolutionary in decades.”

Thanks to a $1 million donation from Sammy Sagol, founder of the Israeli firm Keter Plastics, and his family, in memory of his father, Joseph Sagol, a suite of rooms in Sheba Hospital has been dedicated to bringing together all those in the hospital whose work deals with the brain. Part of this donation will fund a five-year neuroscience research fellowship.

“We have at least 100 professionals who deal with aspects of brain-related diseases,” notes Biegon, in fields ranging from neurosurgery, neuroscience and psychiatry to less obvious areas, such as radiology, gynecology and the Children’s Hospital. Biegon is in the process of teaming clinicians and researchers who are working on similar syndromes or diseases.

The new center doesn’t have any laboratories or expensive equipment of its own — just five rooms with computers for desk-based research, and, most importantly, space for researchers to meet and discuss their work, both formally and informally. “Why would we need our own lab when the hospital already has everything we need? An individual researcher can only dream of getting an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine. The hospital comes equipped with CT, MRI, PET – all the latest and greatest equipment which is way beyond the budget of any individual researcher,” she says.

In contrast to many brain research centers in universities worldwide, the Sagol Center’s research will not focus on animal subjects, but on humans (with their full consent or that of their relatives). “Those of us who do brain research to help people are very limited if we can work only with rats or even primates,” says Biegon. “The brain is the area in which we most differ from animals. Animals don’t have Alzheimer’s disease…so you can only go so far with animal models.

“Research related to human health is so much easier to conduct [with humans] because you can ask them questions!” she laughs. “If I want to research human subjects it has to be under the supervision of medical professionals. The hospital environment is the ideal place to do that.”

Biegon, who officially started work on September 1st, has already initiated several research projects. She is collaborating with the Psychiatry Department on three diverse projects: how stopping smoking affects nicotine receptors in the brain; the effects of male and female gonadal hormones on Alzheimer’s disease; and how the workings of the brain and intelligence are affected by head injury – the latter, in cooperation with the Israeli Defense Forces. She has also initiated a neuroscience project for imaging the brains of fetuses to monitor their development.

“There has been an influx of new people and new technologies in brain research, but it is important to keep pushing the clinical aspects, working with people and not just dealing with cells,” warns Biegon. “There is a danger when researchers have spent all their time with cells in a dish. They may think they have found a miracle cure that works on cells, but when you try it on a human, or even a mouse, chances are it won’t work. Only testing on humans will bring about treatment that will work on humans. It’s important to bring this perspective back into focus,” she says.