Center profile: UC Davis Center for Neuroscience

A collection of great minds

11/5/2012

At the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, you might find a lab team tracking eye patterns next door to a team studying brain images of people with schizophrenia, next door to another measuring how immune responses in pregnant mice affect their offspring.

“We really cover the entire scope of neuroscience,” says Dr. Cameron Carter, the director of the center. “From cellular and molecular biology to human vision and cognition the nature of neuroscience is inherently interdisciplinary. Working across specialties means we enhance our interactions, inspire one another to think out of the box, and incorporate new ideas and technologies that will broaden the impact of our research from the bench all the way to the clinic.”

Advancing basic knowledge and improving human health are at the core of the center’s mission, which is to understand the function of the human brain both in health and in illness.

“Neuroscience continues to produce many discoveries of fundamental importance to our understanding of the basis of normal brain function, to how we think and feel and learn, and to its breakdown in neurological and neuropsychiatric disease,” Carter says.

“Continuing discoveries offer the promise of proving insights into the extraordinary nature of the brain and mind as well as of developing strategies for therapeutic intervention in many disabling human diseases such as autism, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and traumatic brain injury, all of which are associate with enormous social, economic and personal costs.”

Put simply, the center’s work is just extremely cool.

Consider Kim McAllister’s recent study that shows a brief kick to the immune system of a pregnant mouse can cause persistent changes in the brains of the offspring.

McAllister and her colleagues dosed pregnant mice with a chemical that mimics a viral infection. They then measured the levels of 23 different cytokines in the brains of the offspring after they were born. Cytokines are immune-signaling molecules that come into play as the body mounts defenses against infections and other triggers.

"We showed there are changes in immune-signaling molecules in the mother that are sustained in the offspring," McAllister said.

As seen in earlier experiments by others, the offspring of treated mice did show changes in behavior consistent with animal models of autism and schizophrenia. The findings may help researchers better understand the causes of such neurodevelopmental disorders, and could point to new ways of preventing the conditions.

Building on this, McAllister is now the primary investigator on a campus RISE grant to study the role of immune molecules in schizophrenia in her mouse model, a non-human primate model, and human patients.

She says that this type of interdisciplinary work is what makes CNS such a dynamic place. “The center doesn’t officially set up collaborations, instead it creates opportunities for people to interact and talk to each other, out of which come these amazing research ideas and teams.”

“CNS is really the hub of where basic mechanisms of brain function are identified – so I think that we are an integral center for people to collaborate with because you really have to have that in order to understand disease and cognition,” McAllister adds. “We play a really unique and important role to neuroscience at Davis.”

Another exciting frontier of discovery that CNS scientists are leading is called optogenetics. Only a few years old, optogenetics is a minimally invasive study technique that involves combining the DNA of light-sensitive bacteria with a harmless virus, and then introducing the virus into the brain to deliver its light-sensitive ion channels to neurons.

When these channels are incorporated into the membranes of brain neurons, the neurons themselves become photosensitive. Light can then activate or deactivate them.

“With millisecond precision we can control the cells that are active with high specificity, both temporally and spatially,” Professor Marty Usrey says, adding that the method has no side effects for the study subject. “After the light goes off, the cells return right back to normal.”

He and his team are studying how neural pathways are involved with visual processing. To do so, they are measuring brain activity during optogenetic stimulation using UC Davis’ new and state-of-the-art fMRI machine, for which he thanks Dr. Carter.

“Cam put in a grant to purchase an fMRI magnet and placed it immediately adjacent to our laboratory,” Usrey says. “Worth $3 million, it arrived last year and has really opened up the door for us to conduct new types of studies.”

Usrey’s research will have implications far beyond visual processing. Cortical circuits play a crucial role in mediating complex behavior, and disruption of cortical processing underlies numerous disorders, including epilepsy, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease.

“The strategy and tools we develop will have broad application to all areas of neuroscience and provide a much needed bridge between molecular, cellular, systems, and cognitive neuroscience,” Usrey says.

One of CNS’s newest members, neurobiologist Brian Wiltgen joined the UC Davis faculty in summer 2012. He says that CNS’s interdisciplinary opportunities were a strong lure when considering a job here.

“Davis is rare in that it has great neuroscientists who study basic biology and cognitive neuroscientists studying memory. My lab sits right between those two groups,” Wiltgen says. “The boundaries are becoming murky between fields—we are changing and that’s good—and what I do can easily be interpreted as neuroscience or psychology.”

Wiltgen’s work focuses on consolidation of memory—the process in which our daily events become permanently stored in our brains.

“New memories are vulnerable and still being worked on in the brain,” Wiltgen explains. “Slowly over time, memories become stronger and harder to disrupt. This is why some people with amnesia lose new memories around the time of the event, while older ones remain intact. So there must be a brain process for consolidating new memories.”

Like Usrey, he uses optogenetics to study his subject. “We’ve developed a method where we can essentially turn on and off neurons that were active when an animal was learning something: When we teach them, only active cells are affected by our manipulation,” he says. “That allows us to stimulate a specific memory trace and potentially speed up consolidation so that memory becomes stable in a few days instead of a few months. We can also turn off those cells and see if we can prevent consolidation altogether.”

Investigations like these are why CNS is a hub for groundbreaking basic science that is representative of the college’s fundamental philosophy and mission.

“Basic science and knowledge are very much at the core of the center,” Carter says. “We create opportunities for our researchers to collaborate with experts on disorders, knowing that if we support basic science, the opportunities will be reciprocal.”