What Makes Some of Us So Selfish?

A generous gift by Ghahreman Khodadad will fund research at Tufts on the neurological underpinnings of extreme self-centeredness

Ghahreman Khodadad with Philip Haydon

Ghahreman Khodadad knows that being a little bit selfish is normal. “It’s essential to survival,” he said, explaining that the instinct can benefit a person without harming society. After all, if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others. But in his long life, Khodadad, ninety, has seen people who think only of themselves cause terrible pain and suffering around them—from back-stabbing bosses to war-mongering dictators.

Khodadad, who spent thirty years as a neurosurgeon, has long suspected that people with what he calls excessive pathological selfishness (EPS) are born that way, for the most part. Nevertheless, he hopes to find a way to help some become altruistic. Now, with a gift to the Tufts School of Medicine valued at $10.8 million, he will launch a new research endeavor with the potential to explain, at a molecular level, why some people give while others only take.

The Ghahreman Khodadad Center for the Study of Excessive Pathological Selfishness, to be based at the School of Medicine’s Department of Neuroscience, will explore the neurological underpinnings of extreme self-centeredness. Researchers there are already using neurogenetics, which examines the role genes play in the brain, to understand neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, and schizophrenia. Given its advanced brain imaging capabilities and its expertise in creating animal models for specific behaviors, the department is well-suited to explore the biological drivers of EPS.

“We’re constantly looking at how changes in circuits might lead to pathology in terms of brain structure or, ultimately, behavior,” said Philip Haydon, the Annetta and Gustav Grisard Professor of Neuroscience at the School of Medicine and chair of the neuroscience department. “That strength is really what we’re bringing to the question that Dr. Khodadad is so excited to answer.”

Haydon’s own research has focused on interactions between neurons and glial cells in the brain and their connections to disease. His lab identified a way to trigger glial cells to remove plaque accumulations in the brains of mice, effectively reversing their Alzheimer’s disease. That research caught the attention of Khodadad, who, since retiring in 2002, had been looking for the right research institution to investigate extreme selfishness. The two met several times at Khodadad’s home in Kentucky where they talked at the kitchen table about the brain, behavior, and biology.

The neurology of extreme selfishness has not really been studied before, Haydon said, in part because following the pathways from biology to behavior is not easy. “Dr. Khodadad is really setting a bold challenge to us,” he said. The first step could be creating a strain of mice that can serve as a behavioral model. The neuroscience department already has a strain of mice that does not take care of its young, and another that takes all the food from its cage mates.

“We want to develop different models of pathological selfishness and identify the circuits mediating each one,” Haydon said. “And then if you imagine those circuits are partially overlapping, we will identify the core circuit that is fundamental to all of them. Then we’ll be able to really understand the mechanism.”

Khodadad made the gift in the form of two parcels of farmland in Kentucky and Ohio that he has owned for more than thirty years. Once the real estate is sold, some of the proceeds will go toward immediate research. The rest will go toward an endowed professorship—subject to approval by the Board of Trustees—and an endowed research fund.

Such long-term support is important, Khodadad said, because he expects the research could take many decades before it provides the answers he seeks. “When it comes to understanding the brain, we know very, very, very little,” Khodadad said. In the meantime, the neural mapping of excessive selfishness could have broad applications for brain research. 

Behavior has fascinated Khodadad ever since he was a boy growing up in Iran. He remembers at around age five watching ants outside his house and becoming puzzled when he saw two ants locked in battle, one eventually killing the other. What in their nature would cause such aggression, he wondered?

Khodadad studied psychiatry at the University of Tehran School of Medicine. He wanted to understand the mysteries of the brain, not to become a practicing physician. When he graduated and came to the United States, he hoped to do research, but the head of neurosurgery at Penn Medicine talked him into pursuing neurosurgery instead. He went on to have a successful career as a neurosurgeon, even pioneering an operation—still used today—to improve blood flow to the back of the brain.

Still, he regrets not following his passion for research. Now his mission is to jumpstart the science that could eventually make the world a kinder, more compassionate place.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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