Molfese helping to build world-class center


What the human brain does isn’t entirely a mystery. But the why and how of it has driven Dennis Molfese.

As director of UNL’s new Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, he has made a name for himself as a world-renowned expert using brain-recording techniques to investigate the link between the brain and behavior. Now, he is working to galvanize the university’s research efforts and build on an initiative that brought together researchers from diverse disciplines to study complex social dynamics.

Molfese is well known for his skills as an investigator, his talents acquiring grant support and his strength working across disciplines.

“We’re going to be with UNL faculty looking at a host of issues that really cut across every discipline in the university,” Molfese said. “No imaging center in the world is doing that.”

Some 22,000 feet now under construction as part of the East Stadium expansion will become the focal point of this research.

For now, Molfese and his lab are set up in Nebraska Hall. From there he has already trained more than 130 faculty members across the university to introduce them to brain-imaging research and to spark ideas about how to incorporate this approach into their fields of study. Those who choose to continue on will receive advanced training, guidance designing experiments and coaching that will position them to secure grant funds to support their research.

Even if a handful of people are successful, the impact will be significant, Molfese said.

“If they run with it, I have no question in my mind that their publications will be successful, that their reputations will take a quantum leap because again, they’ll be doing things nobody else has done in their field,” he said.

The lab’s centerpiece, a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine or fMRI, is expected to arrive on campus this winter. It can track blood flow within areas of the brain and detect subtle changes linked to behavior.

A recently awarded $1.2 million grant from the Nebraska Research Initiative will help pay for the machine along with other cutting-edge equipment.

Studying the effects of concussions

The Memorial Stadium site will support the center’s partnership with UNL athletics to study the true effects of concussions, among other sports-related issues.

The effort is gaining momentum, too, from UNL’s status as a member of the Big Ten Conference and its academic arm, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. Molfese recently was selected to coordinate research across the 13 CIC institutions to understand the long-term effects of concussions.

Whether uncovering insights into concussions, helping economic experts understand what people really consider valuable (as opposed to what they say they value), or uncovering new insights into conditions like schizophrenia, the new center has significant potential to transform lives. Recognizing this, Molfese has set his bar high.

“Our goal is to do nothing less than to make this a cutting-edge, world-renowned, world-unique brain-imaging center that eventually will become a model for brain-imaging centers around the world,” he said.