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Minds on the Matter

Two UCF faculty discuss our understanding of brain function and the mysteries we’re still trying to solve.

Danish Bhatti

Danish Bhatti

Position at UCF: Associate professor of medicine

Hometown: Lahore, Pakistan

Alma Maters: King Edward Medical University, M.D.
University of Nebraska Medical Center, residency and movement disorders fellowship

Luis Favela

Luis Favela

Position at UCF: Associate professor of philosophy and cognitive sciences

Hometown: Los Angeles/San Diego, California

Alma Maters: University of Cincinnati, Ph.D. in philosophy and M.A. in experimental psychology
San Diego State University, M.A. in philosophy
University of San Diego, B.A. in English

Danish Bhatti: Luis, as an associate professor of philosophy and cognitive sciences, how do you see the relationship between creativity and logic?

Luis Favela: I think they can go hand in hand. Creativity is just the spark, these “aha” moments. The reasoning part is, “Well then, how do I make that understandable to myself and to others?” So as someone interested in the history of science, (I’ve seen) this has been the process in many ways.

Alan Turing was considered the “father” of modern computers. He was trying to think in these abstract ways about how rules and systems fit together to solve any problem, and that required creativity and imagination. Then he formulated it with the math and then the logic, and that let him convey it to other people in an understandable way. I hope one day to be able to do it as well — maybe 10% as well as Turing.

DB: Medicine is much more restrictive in terms of the practice, and even in research it’s very heavily regulated and constrained. My clinical practice and research relate to movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, which is my main focus.

I think the creativeness in clinical practice research is more on the implementation side, listening to the patient on how therapies, tools and diagnostics can be implemented better.

Luis, you were recently selected for a fellowship that aims to understand brain-related issues and solutions. What is the significance of that collaboration?

LF: I was selected by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement for a Scialog Fellowship, which is examining issues related to the molecular basis of cognition. The organization is bringing together people with different backgrounds for four days to get us to think really hard about developing risk-taking projects and ideas to move science forward in this area. This work will contribute to a variety of brain-related issues, such as recovering from brain injuries and learning how to prevent neurodegenerative disease, and advance neuromorphic computing.

I was really honored to be selected, especially as one of three philosophers among all these scientists. It’s great, but where else can we have opportunities like these to work with people so different from you?

DB: Yes. The two areas where I personally work with other teams include translational medicine, where we look at taking concepts from the lab to see how they can be used in a clinical trial.

The other is in the area of better diagnostic tools. A lot of medicine is trying to develop biotechnology through things like at-home monitoring and wearable devices, where you have to work with other experts in mechanical and electrical engineering, software, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Medicine will change significantly with AI and machine learning.

LF: In philosophy of science, this topic is called automation of discovery. You may want to test various kinds of medications, but you only have so many participants and people to run the experiments. But if you were to test virtual patients with virtual medications, you could test combinations so much faster. There are a lot of interesting issues with experiment and science, and how do we know these [tests] are reliable?

DB: There are still many areas we need to develop to understand brain health. We need to improve the reliability of diagnosis for many conditions, and we need more treatment options available for patients. For instance, once you have lost brain cells, there is still no way to reverse that, so at best what we are struggling for is to find ways to prevent ongoing cell loss.

LF: What are some preventative measures for maintaining brain function as we age?

DB: Most things that help improve brain health are the same things that help health in general. Cardiac health is the best [according to studies]. People who exercise regularly, especially in their 20s and 30s, have a much lower risk of Parkinson’s than those who don’t. Healthy diets, lots of vegetables, (maintaining) low cholesterol — things like that.

The only substances known to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s are coffee and tea; they’re cousins. The more you drink, the lower the risk.

Reading, being active socially and (an active) physical lifestyle are all preventative. That’s not only true for Parkinson’s, but it’s also true for all neurological disorders, dementias and so on and so forth.

LF: From the theoretical philosopher of science perspective, we don’t have an overarching theory of brain function, cognition, consciousness or anything like that. It’s an interesting tension because that absence of understanding doesn’t prevent us from exploring and developing medications and treatments, but I imagine that it might help somewhere down the road. And I find that disheartening sometimes, but mostly I find it really fascinating and interesting because there’s so much work that we still need to do.