Imagine being able to peek inside a person’s mind and understand not just what it looks like but why it does what it does. This curiosity has driven Dr. Rafael Yuste’s career as a neurobiologist and researcher. His desire to understand the human brain has put him at the forefront of his field. So much so that in 2013 he was chosen to lead the Obama administration’s BRAIN Initiative — Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies — or BAM (Brain Activity Map Project) whose goal is to map the activity of neurons in the human brain. As President Obama said during the initiative’s announcement, this research has the potential to “unlock the secrets to Alzheimer’s disease” as well as other brain diseases that remain a mystery.
The 49-year-old Spaniard has been studying the brain since he was a medical student. “I was trained as an M.D. originally and decided to switch to basic research after doing a rotation in the psychology ward when I realized that we really didn’t understand what’s wrong with schizophrenic patients,” Yuste explained during a radio interview. “We couldn’t treat them because we couldn’t get to the cause of the disease. We don’t understand how brain works so it’s difficult to fix these problems.”
That curiosity led him to work in the labs of Nobel Prize winning scientists at Cambridge University in London and Rockefeller University in New York City where he received his doctorate. As a professor of Biological Sciences and Neuroscience at Columbia University since 1996, he along with his lab currently study theories to better understand the causes of epilepsy. Moreover, since 2005, Yuste has been the co-director of Columbia’s Kavli Institute for Brain Circuits. His work has garnered him awards from New York City’s Mayor’s office as well as the Society for Neuroscience’s Young Investigator Awards and allowed him to be a visiting professor at various universities and a scientific investigator at world acclaimed institutions.
His natural wonder and dedicated research could not only change lives but also provide humans with the most fundamental knowledge. “The brain is the most sophisticated matter in the universe,” Yuste explained of his work. “We are our minds…we will understand ourselves for the first time.”