Only the top students are allowed to enter the intense programs, which scrutinize the brain's inner workings.
AURORA, COLO. - James Holmes inhabited an academic world so wondrous that it could unlock the chemical code to human behavior, so complex that few outside the nation's cloister of neuroscientists could begin to comprehend it.
The graduate neuroscience program at the University of Colorado-Denver's Anschutz Medical Campus ranks among the top third of graduate programs in neuroscience -- the study of the brain, its 100 billion nerve cells, and the connections among those cells that control thought and action.
"If I go to a bar and somebody asks me what I do, all I say is research," said David Cantu, who got his doctorate from the program. "If I'd tell people I was specializing in mitochondrial reactive oxygen species and how it pertains to cell deaths, people's eyes would start to glaze over."
It's the same program that Holmes, suspected of killing 12 people and injuring 58 at a movie theater July 20, recently dropped after his first year.
Interviews with top directors of the university's graduate program, and others outside the school, provide a glimpse into the lives of those who choose such a rigorous course of study. The Colorado program has been largely shuttered to public view since Holmes' arrest, a month after he announced plans to abandon his graduate studies there.
The interviews on that campus were conducted on the basis that Holmes not be discussed, but what emerges is a vivid portrait of the intense world in which the 24-year-old student lived over the past year.
In this rarefied and high-pressure environment, students who are already near the best of their game are asked to exponentially expand their capabilities, frequently under tough competition, and often in isolation.
'The top students'
The $126 million-a-year neuroscience program in recent years has developed the basis for drugs for the treatment of Down syndrome and Alzheimer's disease and discovered that eating disorders such as bulimia can trigger alterations in the brain's reward circuits. It has also revealed that the brains of mice can be profoundly affected by the kind of cages in which they're kept, raising questions about some of the most fundamental experiments in biological science.
Housed in gleaming new research buildings on the Aurora campus, the program is one of dozens that have multiplied across the country over the past 20 years as researchers have begun to develop the modern tools needed to scrutinize and measure the inner workings of the brain.
The graduate program accepts six students each year for an intense, five-to-six-year journey through the dense frontiers of neuroanatomy, cell biology, genetics and pharmacology. First-year students are plunged into fundamental course work accompanied by a trio of lab rotations designed to help them select an area of research.
"They need to be the top students that have been admitted," said Diego Restrepo, co-director of the university's Center for NeuroScience. "The transition from the student to the researcher is the whole goal."
Students are closely monitored but, at Denver and at most top schools, quickly begin to take ownership of their own progress. "We're taking really, really smart students who have a pretty good idea of what they want to do and making sure they have the tools to start out, and then we set them loose," said John Ngai, director of the graduate program in neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley.
The pace rapidly becomes robust and the competition severe, as students jockey for the best-funded labs, aim to have their work published in scientific journals and spend long, sometimes exhausting hours in the lab endlessly repeating and redesigning experiments.
"I think my first student got away with a 40-hour week, though most students spend significantly more than that, probably 50 or 60. And some of them much more," said Louis Reichardt, neuroscience program director at UC San Francisco.
"There are experiments where you have to have data points every half hour, and when that happens, you put a cot in the lab and you check it all through the night -- I've done that," said Barry Shur, dean of the University of Colorado-Denver's graduate school. "We expect the students to be self-motivated, passionate, and not have to be told to go into the laboratory."
The work can be isolating drudgery. Graduate students' lab hours are often spent alone in tiny, sterile rooms -- rats and mice their only companions -- before the students go home to study. "There's a lot of time when you're just alone, [and] it's very easy to get lost in those periods of isolation," said Shawn Nielsen, a fourth-year doctoral student a UC Irvine.
Neuroscience students often talk of having had no intention of embarking on so demanding a field until, somewhere in an undergraduate biology class, they stumble upon a little-known aspect of the brain that jolts them with its mystery and potential. Holmes, who had graduated with honors as a neuroscience student at UC Riverside in 2010, appeared to be interested in the physiological and genetic underpinnings of mental illness. At a science camp at Miramar College when he was 18, Holmes made a presentation on "temporal illusions," the inaccurate perceptions of reality that can occur due to lags in neural processing.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.