On Sept. 13, 1848, a work crew was laying tracks that would streamline railway transportation through the state of Vermont.
But little did crew foreman Phineas Gage know that the day would be remembered more for what it would reveal about the human brain than advancement of the railroad.His plan called for a considerable amount of dynamite to blast a hole through the rock that obstructed the path of the tracks.
Instead, the friction of Gage's 4-foot-long tamping rod against the rock ignited the explosives and sent the pole through one of his eyes, his skull and the frontal lobes of his brain.
For reasons still unknown to science, Gage lived.
"When he came to," which even to this day is considered something of a miracle, said Dr. William McClure, director of the program in neuroscience at the University of Southern California, "he was a completely different man."
Before, he had been mild-mannered; after, he became a curmudgeon.
The unfortunate case of Phineas Gage is considered a classic in the anecdoctal literature of neuroscience, a field that concentrates on the study of the brain.
But even though the human brain has been examined from its electrochemical properties and structure down to its very genes it still remains an enigma to scientists.
Because of this, McClure and his research colleagues are attempting to do for brain science what USC's coaches have done for football produce winning teams on a consistent scale.
McClure wants to develop the biggest and best neuroscience program in the country if not the world to answer questions about the brain that have remained a mystery for centuries.
These include where and how memories are stored, what the relationship between brain chemistry and mental illness is and why people dream.
Such studies also might eventually explain how an organ so fragile and soft when held can be resilient enough to sustain thousands of pounds of force, as in Gage's case, and still function.
Dr. Donald Humphrey, a neuroscientist and director of biological sciences at Emory University in Atlanta calls the USC plan a tall order but one that can be accomplished if all the right elements are brought into play.
"In terms of educating neuroscience students, it's good to have breadth in the program," said Humphrey who is also former education committee chairman of the Society for Neuroscience. The society is the nation's primary professional organization of scientists who study the brain.
McClure and his colleagues say by the mid-1990s they hope to have their multimillion-dollar neuroscience program in full swing and making significant contributions to scientific literature.
He calls the field of neuroscience "the most challenging" area of research facing scientists from fields as diverse as engineeering, computing, biology, psychology, anatomy, medicine and many others.
Building on work at the California Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, McClure said the burgeoning USC program also will advance its work in neural network computers.
"We're using the human brain for developing our next generation of computers," McClure said of studies that already have produced devices in the laboratory that can see, speak and perform functions of thought much in the same way the brain does.