O'Donnell Brain Institute helps U.S. effort to study neural circuits behind learning, memory

UT Southwestern's O'Donnell Brain Institute will help in a national effort to understand the neural circuits behind learning, memory, and behavior.

Four UT Southwestern Medical Center neuroscientists have received a combined $1.6 million in awards through the federal BRAIN Initiative, a program launched in 2013 to accelerate research and develop potential therapies for brain disorders. The program is funding scientific projects across the country focusing on topics ranging from mental health to opioid addiction.

UT Southwestern's contribution will involve researching how neurons enable memory formation and recollection, how the mammalian brain decodes smell and translates it to behavior, in addition to studying songbirds to better understand how the brain controls behavior. A fourth project will develop technology that tracks brain circuits to understand how specific wiring and rewiring of the brain contributes to learning and memory.

"These NIH awards highlight UT Southwestern's outstanding talent in the neurosciences, in particular the expertise these scientists have in studying how the brain learns and stores memory," said Dr. Joseph Takahashi, Chair of Neuroscience at UT Southwestern. "By better understanding the underpinnings of speech and memory disorders, we hope to unravel the many mysteries of the brain and develop effective therapies for a number of neurological conditions."

The National Institutes of Health announced awards to the following UT Southwestern scientists:

Todd Roberts(Grant # NS108424): How the brain plans and fluently produces some skilled behaviors is poorly understood. Dr. Roberts' research will use a novel combination of optical and closed-loop methods in songbirds to document the neural activity involved in preparing and performing a complex motor skill, providing insight into how the brain controls behavior.

Brad Pfeiffer(Grant # NS104829): Cognitive function and successful memory retrieval require the expression of precisely timed sequences of activity across large populations of neurons. Such internally generated sequences are disrupted in several models of neuropsychiatric disease, highlighting their importance to healthy brain function. Dr. Pfeiffer's research will identify how internally generated sequences interact with experience to enable memory formation and retrieval.

Wei Xu(Grant # NS104828): Human behavior, habits, emotions, and thoughts arise from information flow along brain circuits comprised of neurons joined together by synapses, the junction of nerve cells where information is transmitted. However, it is technically difficult to determine how various types of neurons are wired and if the wiring changes in different behavioral states or in brain disease. Dr. Xu's team is tasked with developing technology for tracking, monitoring, and controlling brain circuits formed by multiple synapses, and with revealing how specific wiring of the brain network contributes to learning and memory.

Julian Meeks(Grant # NS104826): The olfactory system, which underlies the sense of smell, can dramatically alter moods, emotions, and other behavioral states. The mechanisms in the brain underlying this mysterious sensory function are poorly understood. Dr. Meeks' team will identify how the mammalian brain decodes environmental chemosensory information and translates it to behavior.

Dr. Meeks is Associate Professor of Neuroscience with the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute. Drs. Pfeiffer, Roberts, and Xu are Assistant Professors of Neuroscience with the O'Donnell Brain Institute. Dr. Pfeiffer is also a Southwestern Medical Foundation Scholar in Biomedical Research, Dr. Roberts is a Thomas O. Hicks Scholar in Medical Research, and Dr. Xu is a Louise W. Kahn Scholar in Biomedical Research. Dr. Takahashi is an Investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and holds the Loyd B. Sands Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience at UT Southwestern.

The NIH BRAIN Initiative®is managed by 10 institutes whose missions and current research portfolios complement the goals of the BRAIN Initiative: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Eye Institute, National Institute on Aging, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, Eunice Kennedy ShriverNational Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institute of Mental Health, and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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