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David Geffen School of Medicine

On Track

  Dr. Joaquin Fuster
  Dr. Joaquin Fuster’s love of trains has been intertwined with his scientific life throughout his academic career.

By Robin Keats • Photography by Ann Johansson

As a puffy cloud of vapor streams from its smokestack and its whistle sounds, the gleaming, miniaturized locomotive chugging along the track recalls an era that is nearly a hundred years in the past. A scaled-down version of a historic train that once traveled along the Rhine River from Holland to Switzerland, it rolls through a tabletop landscape that fills an upstairs room in the home of Joaquin Fuster, MD, PhD. Instead of the strict timetable of its heyday, this downsized facsimile operates on a haphazard schedule that accommodates his need for playful diversion.

Most diverting of all, Dr. Fuster admits, with a mischievous smile, are train-wreck moments. Like when the locomotive and its luxury passenger cars derail while exiting from a papier-mâché-mountain tunnel into a make-believe Tyrolean world. “I’ve seen plenty of crashes, especially in tunnels,” he says as he reaches across an idyllic mock-Alpine scene to right the train. His movements are very deliberate, to avoid knocking over a plastic marching band and dozens of would-be passenger figurines that are posed to board.

“This requires steely nerves,” says Dr. Fuster, who knows a thing or two about nerves. He is among the world’s foremost authorities on the brain, memory and the workings of the prefrontal cortex. “One little thing goes haywire, like a bad neuron might, and it throws the whole thing off.”

Dr. Fuster easily identifies links between his scientific passion — he trained in his native Spain and since 1960 has been at UCLA, where he now is emeritus distinguished professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences with a raft of publications that include a half-dozen books and scores of influential academic papers — and his lifelong enthusiasm for trains. Trains figure in his past, and they serve to reflect the science to which he devotes his life. “Trains and the brain both work with conditional codes, the confluences of many factors that all must work fluidly together,” he says.

As he fiddles with switches that can send a model diesel train whizzing past an electric one, he analyzes what is literally at play before him: a transport system that has all its requisite lights, bells and whistles flashing, ringing and warning in sequence. “It’s a system. It works like a brain,” he says. “There has to be order for it to work right.”

Both brains and trains have fascinated him for decades, and he wistfully confides, with the twinkling eyes of a child showing off what might be the greatest Christmas present ever, that, “I was always in love with model trains, since I was a little boy.” His uncle Joseph was an engineer for the national railroad after the Spanish Civil War and helped foster his hobby. “I was already interested in trains. When I was 19 and still in medical school, I would go to see the trains at the station in Barcelona. I will never forget the mist in winter months, the mixture of smoke and fog and those trains coming in very slowly, majestically,” he says.

  On Track
  On Track
  The tabletop landscape and its tableaux of Tyrolean life through which Dr. Fuster’s trains run occupy most of an upstairs room in his home.

His father was a psychiatrist (and a medic on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War), and he operated a small private psychiatric hospital in the large home that the family rented on the outskirts of Barcelona. “My family is steeped in medicine,” Dr. Fuster says. “I have lost count of the number of physicians in our last four generations — somewhere between 15 and 20, several in academia. Included in the list are my grandfathers, my father, my brother and my son. I have often told my psychiatry residents that I started my own residency at an early age and under a superb attending physician. Indeed, my father, who in due time became university chairman (at the University of Barcelona), was widely reputed to be one of the best teachers of psychiatry in Spain.”

Dr. Fuster’s own interest in cognition began after he graduated from medical school and was continuing his training in Innsbruck, Austria. It was there, he says, that the “brain bug bit me hard.” His newfound enthusiasm “piggybacked on my learning of English” as he practiced by reading issues of the Journal of Neurophysiology and came across the papers of such world-renowned neuroscientists as H.W. Magoun. “I was utterly fascinated by the subject,” he says. The connection between his budding interest in brain science and his love of trains was bolstered further by the nightly passage of the fabled Orient Express, which he could hear from his bedroom window.

Trains also hold significance for him because of their connection to geography. “They link countries together, and my wife and I have a love of different countries, cultures and languages.” That love is so deep that they speak a different language with one another each weekday: Italian on Monday, French on Tuesday, Spanish on Wednesday, German on Thursday and English on Friday. On weekends, they converse in Catalan. “That’s when we fight, in our native tongue, of course!” he brightly chimes.

All these activities are taking place in the area of his brain in which he is a leading expert, the prefrontal cortex. “It’s really the vanguard of evolution,” he says of this portion of the brain. “It is really what makes us human. It is what opens us to our future — purpose, intention, creation and freedom. All these things are the prerogative of the human.”

The overturned train now righted and set securely back on the track, Dr. Fuster starts it rolling again on its fantasy journey. “It’s got a built-in program for lights and switches. But this all requires human intervention,” he says, with an all-too-human expression of bemused chagrin as, a moment later, the train derails one more time.

Robin Keats is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.


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