Neurobiology of Cells and Circuits

neurobiology of cells

A central aspect of the Carney Institute for Brain Science is its study of the neurobiology of cells and circuits. This wide range of work includes investigating the causes of autism spectrum disorders, studying the molecular biology of the brain that could explain addiction and creating a novel technology providing a powerful means for studying neural circuits.

“Our work in this area provides a crucial foundation to our inquiries in many areas,” said Carney Institute Director Diane Lipscombe, “and our successful recruitment of top faculty from around the country in recent years is making a huge difference.”

One focus of the Carney Institute in this area is the study of neurodegenerative diseases, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer’s, which have remained resistant to cures or therapies. The institute is deeply involved with ALS research, as a broad team of faculty led by Brown and including two collaborating institutions developed research plans that won a major grant from the ALS Finding a Cure Foundation.

“Despite 20 or 30 years of focused effort by pharmaceutical companies and labs, we still don’t know why neurons die in neurodegenerative disorders,” said Lipscombe, who herself is involved in the ALS research. “ALS is part of a group of disorders that takes people’s lives way too early. We need more research into the basic mechanisms that lead to cell death.”

Exploring the causes of autism spectrum disorders is one of the institute’s faculty members in neurobiology, Eric Morrow, a 2017 winner of a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, a national award given to a highly select group of researchers. Morrow, an associate professor of biology and psychiatry and human behavior, is investigating molecular mechanisms of brain development and genetic alterations that underlie not only autism but many disorders of human cognitive development and even connect with neurodegeneration.

Another Institute researcher, associate professor of neuroscience Gilad Barnea, has invented a new and dynamic technology called “trans-Tango” to map and examine brain circuits to understand how they give rise to perception, memory and behavior.

Alex Jaworski, assistant professor of neuroscience, is teasing apart the signals that guide growing neurons to their destinations. And Karla Kaun, an assistant professor of neuroscience, is using fruit fly models to study the fundamental molecular biology of the brain that connects with alcohol addiction and rewards.

“I think that we have an opportunity to really think about the function of neural circuits in a way in which we’re pulling from a number of academic disciplines, and not just singularly focused with a narrow viewpoint,” Lipscombe said. “That is the strength of the institute — bringing people together from a number of disciplines to take on these big challenging problems.”