Open dialogue

Prof. Idan Segev“I want to share what I do. I feel a duty to explain,” says Professor Idan Segev, a member of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences (ELSC) at the Hebrew University. This urge has led Segev, the David and Inez Myers Professor of Computational Neuroscience and the former director of the internationally acclaimed Interdisciplinary Center for Neural Computation (ICNC), to pursue several outreach efforts. Among the most successful is the Brain Circle, which Segev established with Hebrew University Associate Vice-President for Europe Yoram Cohen in 2005, and which was inspired by a conversation with Munich-based businessman Yaakov Chai who had hosted a presentation at his home by ICNC researchers and their Max Planck Institute colleagues.

The Brain Circle brings together brain scientists and curious businesspeople who are interested in learning about the mysteries of the brain. Once a year, the group convenes for a three-day retreat on the latest findings in brain research and their implications at workshops, lectures and informal conversations during gourmet meals and visits to art exhibits and tourist sites.

The dialogue continues between retreats through lectures, conversations and two exclusive projects: the annual Gray Matters magazine and the Brain Book website where researchers provide updates and answer questions. In return, each Brain Circle member — there are 50 to date — commits to supporting an ICNC doctoral student for five years. So far, retreats have been held in Israel and Europe — Jerusalem, Château Lafite in Bordeaux and Saturnia in Italy — although Segev hopes to form Brain Circles in America and Israel.

“The idea of being part of something, of being involved in the research, is very exciting to me,” says Hebrew University lay leader Nathalie Rodach Berrebi of Switzerland. “And it is not only an idea — I feel we really do collaborate.”

The interaction is mutually beneficial, says Segev. “Our mission is to explain what we do in an understandable way. When you get questions from a layperson, you are forced to revisit the fundamentals and that can help me gain new insights. Going outside of my community also exposes me to new ideas and I gain knowledge in fields beyond my expertise from my Brain Circle friends.” Indeed, the Brain Circle is playing a key role in the ELSC, a bold new endeavor — and the largest of its kind in Europe and the Middle East — into which the ICNC will be integrated. Much advice, says Segev, has come from those with experience in the construction industry.

“When Professor Hagai Bergman showed his film of Parkinson’s patients being treated with the deep brain stimulation technique stemming from his basic research, it had a huge impact,” says President of the University’s European Friends, Nilly Sikorsky of Switzerland. “Usually dialogue between scientists and the rest of us is so difficult that we restrict ourselves to the fields we know. The Brain Circle opens up a completely unknown, but now approachable, world.”