July 3, 2005, Updated September 13, 2012

There’s a specific scientific reason for holding the conference in Israel – it’s a world leader in the life sciences and information technology.There wasn’t any one particular reason why some of the world’s most respected brain researchers gathered last week in a Jerusalem conference center – there were lots of them!

According to Rutgers University Professor Mark Gluck – who, along with world renown Hebrew University Professor Haggai Bergman, organized the two day conference focusing on interdisciplinary approaches to understanding Parkinson’s disease – scientific, social and political motives were among those behind the gathering.

“Scientifically, we brought together people from all over the world – from the US, Europe and Israel – who are working on various aspects of Parkinson’s disease research and on addiction – the two share common neuropathways,” Gluck told ISRAEL21c during a lunch break at the Mishkenot Sha’anim Conference Center in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem. “Different researchers in different countries are working on the problems from various perspectives – like computer modeling.

“There’s a specific scientific reason for holding the conference in Israel – it’s a world leader in the life sciences and information technology – and the conference is a confluence of these two. Particularly, we decided to hold the conference at Hebrew University because it’s a leading center in this field and has a center of neurocomputation.

“My co-director – Prof Bergman – invented deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s patients – a process that stimulates parts of the brain in order to control motor tremors. So Israel’s a natural place to hold the conference.”

Parkinson’s is a progressive disease of the nervous system that affects an estimated 1.2 million people in the United States and Canada. Symptoms include tremors, body rigidity and problems in movement. Former boxing champion Muhammad Ali, actor Michael J. Fox and former Attorney General Janet Reno are among prominent victims of Parkinson’s.

Bergman, working in the late 1980s with a Parkinson’s monkey model, discovered a group of cells located deep in the brain called the sub-thalamic nucleus. When Parkinson’s was present, he discovered, these cells were overactive.

The question he strove to answer was: was the Parkinson’s disease causing the cells to be overactive, or was the overactivity causing Parkinson’s? To find out, Bergman injected a chemical into the brain to kill the cells, and he discovered that the Parkinson’s symptoms abated.

His research was published in 1990, and created the basic methodology for a group of neurosurgeons in Grenoble, France, in 1993, to first implant an electrode deep inside the brain of a human patient with Parkinson’s disease. The electrode triggered an electric impulse which provided deep brain stimulation, and ‘switched off’ the overactive cells, dramatically decreasing the level Parkinson’s-induced involuntary movement.

Following the success of the operation in Europe, the next centers to attempt this operation were in the United States and Canada. In 2001, when the procedure gained FDA approval, the number of hospitals in the United States performing the operation mushroomed.

“In computational neuroscience, we’re clearly one of the world leaders,” Bergman told ISRAEL21c. “Our lab is coming out with new research all the time. My group of 10 graduate students are having quite a good impact and publishing in important journals. There aren’t many American labs that are doing as well.”

Beyond science, the next reason Bergman and Gluck worked for three years to make last week’s conference – entitled ‘Basal Ganglia, Dopamine, and Learning: Integrating Computational and Clinical Perspectives ‘ – become a reality, was the ever-present threat of a scientific boycott on Israel by European colleagues.

“I found it really upsetting – an attack on my tribe twice over – fellow Jews and fellow scientists,” said Gluck. “And this was something that I could do beyond being upset and annoyed. It’s very rare to find an international issue that somebody can actually have a voice in and affect change. I thought that bringing leading scientists to Israel and publicizing the fact was the best way to show that the most important researchers are not being influenced by the boycott – and actually the opposite was true: It was resulting in more and more collaborations.”

Professor Jean Saint-Cyr of the University of Toronto – who lectured the 100 attendees about the connection between pathological gambling and Parkinson’s patient – called the boycott immoral.

“I’m fundamentally opposed to it, it’s not as if scientists are militants and adding their voices to any political problems in the area. I think that science should be above all that. Being here is a signal that we don’t agree with the boycott ? we’re voting with our feet,” he said.

If those weren’t enough, another goal of the conference was to foster three-way ties between the American and Israeli researchers and their Palestinian counterparts. Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem was originally one of the co-hosts of the conference along with Hebrew University, but pressure on the Palestinian scientists caused them to pare down their participation.

“I was in charge of reaching out to our Palestinian colleagues,” explained Bergman. “I went to Al-Quds three or four times, and until two weeks ago, everything was fine. Recently, however, they felt it was beyond their ability to bring a group of scientists to the conference. However, the dean of medical school and head of the neurology department came for some sessions and met some of the people here.

“It’s good that they were introduced to our colleagues from the US like Mark.
Then the next time, the direct connection can be with them, and there won’t be as much pressure on them to deal directly with us. It was a first step.”

According to Gluck – co-director of the Rutgers Memory Disorders Project – collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian scientists is desirable for both sides, and he’s glad to act as a mediator.

“I’m not naïve enough to believe that if scientists talk to each other that it will lead directly to a resolution of the conflict. But it does create an atmosphere of communications – in topics that are not controversial. You don’t start talking about the hardest things first, but rather find areas of common interests,” he said.

“For the Palestinians, Israel could be a fabulous neighbor. In terms of health care advances, Israel is a leader, and regional cooperation would enable that knowledge to filter to its neighbors.”

The day following the conference, the 44-year-old Gluck was headed to Al-Quds for meetings with colleagues there to discuss collaborative research.

“We’re trying to design some form of Parkinson’s research that can be done collaboratively with us, Hebrew University and Al Quds,” he said, explaining that at this stage, it would be easier for the Palestinian scientists to collaborate with Israelis indirectly through American involvement.

The energetic Gluck is not stopping there. The inaugural conference also planted the seeds for a new Rutgers/Israel exchange program. The Rutgers-Israel Biomedical Research and Education Exchange is expected to grow into a comprehensive exchange program for study and collaborative research – bringing Rutgers students and faculty to Israel and Israeli scientists and students to Rutgers.

“The program will take US undergraduates interested in biomed research and bring them to Israeli university labs. They’ll grow professionally, but in addition, they’ll get the Israel experience, see the country for themselves and get a new perspective,” said Gluck.

“From what they read in the newspapers, most students know only about the occasional violence and political struggles, but few are aware that Israel is an amazing engine of scientific and medical innovation and progress. By sending them over to do research in Israeli labs, I think we can both increase US-Israeli links and collaboration in biomedical research, as well as spread the good news and the strengths of Israel like its amazing 21st century cutting edge research labs and the many ways in which Israeli scientists and doctor are helping to improve healthcare worldwide with their discoveries and innovations.”

The University of Toronto’s Saint-Cyr agrees that those interested in neuroscience have much to learn from their Israeli colleagues.

“I’ve been working in neuroscience all my life and have met many Israeli scientists, and they’ve always been top-notch. The educational facilities here are as good as they get anyplace in the world. In Canada, we’ve had many positive collaborations with Israeli scientists.”

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Jason Harris

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