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Undergraduate in Kuo Lab Has Historical Paper Published

When undergraduate Will Lyon took a job in Dr. John Kuo’s laboratory, he knew he’d be working on brain cancer research.


“Woolsey’s method created much more precise functional maps of the brain. His research laid the groundwork for much better understanding of the functions of the cortex.”


- Will Lyon

He didn’t expect to also be lead author of a historical paper published in the Journal of Neurosurgery, but he admits that it will look pretty good on his medical school applications.


“It’s exciting,” says Will, a Brookfield (Wisconsin) senior majoring in biology and philosophy. “I never really expected to get published as an undergraduate.”


His mentor is happy, too.


“It is rather impressive for Will’s paper to be accepted by the one of the major journals in our field”, says Kuo, associate professor and neurosurgeon who directs the UW Health comprehensive brain tumor program. “I’m very proud of all the students who worked on this paper.”


Building on the Work of a Brain-Mapping Pioneer


The article, “Clinton Woolsey: Functional Brain Mapping Pioneer,” was published online on August 8, 2014. The work began when Dr. Kyle Swanson, currently the chief neurosurgery resident, began combing the UW archives for material on Woolsey, a pioneering brain researcher who helped start the Waisman Center. Several more students from the Kuo lab helped pull together the research, and Lyon spent the summer of 2013 writing.


“I think it’s really important for young scientists to look back and see the way science builds on the work of those who came before,” says Swanson. “They learn that scientists dedicated their lives to finding out this information.”


Swanson himself sees the importance of Woolsey’s brain mapping work every day in the operating room – brain mapping guides neurosurgeons to what parts of the brain they can safely treat without creating more problems.


Undergraduate Will Lyon and medical student Kelli Pointer were author and co-author of a paper on historical UW brain researcher Dr. Clinton Woolsey, published recently in the Journal of Neurosurgery. Both are members of Dr. John Kuo’s laboratory.Most people probably first heard of brain mapping when President Barack Obama made headlines last year when he announced the $100-million next generation human brain mapping initiative.


But the field actually began, as the paper explains, in the 19th century, when German scientists used electrical stimuli to locate muscle control regions in dog brains.


Clinton Woolsey first entered the research lab in 1928 as a Johns Hopkins medical student, doing neuroanatomy research to further his goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. Sadly for him, a tuberculosis infection – a common side effect of a 1920s medical education – prevented him from surgeon.


Surgery’s loss turned out to be the research world’s gain.


Over the years, Woolsey and his collaborators helped map the cerebral cortex of many mammal species, focusing on the parts of the brain involved in sensory perception. Woolsey turned the research on its head, so to speak. Instead of stimulating the brain with electricity, he pioneered the method of stimulating electrodes on the body, and recording the evoked potentials in the corresponding brain regions.


“Woolsey’s method created much more precise functional maps of the brain,” Lyon says. “His research laid the groundwork for much better understanding of the functions of the cortex.”


Woolsey’s technique has been adapted for use by neurosurgeons worldwide for intraoperative monitoring of brain functions, to detect any changes to maximize safety.


Influence is Felt Today


Dr. Walter Meek, one of the founders of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, came to Chicago to hear Woolsey lecture in 1947. He was so impressed that he offered Woolsey a professorship in physiology.


Woolsey came to Madison the next year, setting up his laboratory in Science Hall, and bringing with him a mammalian brain collection that became one of the world’s largest.


Over the years, he built a large and productive lab, training nearly 150 graduate students and fellows, and making remarkable brain maps through new discoveries of brain functions. In 1960, Woolsey’s Laboratory of Neurophysiology moved into the new Medical Sciences Research Building. In the early 1970s, Woolsey was a key member of the committee that designed the Waisman Center on Mental Retardation and Human Development. His laboratory moved into the new Waisman Center when it opened in 1973.


Although Woolsey couldn’t become a neurosurgeon, he was often invited into the operating room. His discovery of a previously unknown brain area involved in epileptic seizures helped improve neurosurgery for epilepsy patients. And at the UW, he was often in the operating room to map the brains of patients undergoing brain surgery, leading to important discoveries. For example, his research helped neurosurgeons cure phantom-limb pain by defining the regions responsible for pain.


Woolsey retired in 1975, but his influence and career is celebrated by the annual Clinton Woolsey Lecture Series, which invites prominent neuroscientists to speak at UW each year.


Lyon’s co-authors on the paper include fellow undergraduates Tej Mehta, MD/PhD student Kelli Pointer, recent undergraduates Daniel Walden and Ardem Elmayan, and Drs. Swanson and Kuo.


“I am happy that our students, who will be the next generation of physician-scientists, now understand the major foundational contributions of Wisconsin’s own Clinton Woolsey to map brain functions,” Kuo says. “It’s important to have an historical context as we move into a new era through the National BRAIN mapping initiative.”

Date Published: 08/20/2014

News tag(s):  researchneurosciencesepilepsycancerneurosurgery

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Undergraduate in Kuo Lab Has Historical Paper Published

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