In the late 1800s, the father of modern neuroscientist, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, looked into a microscope at a section of brain tissue and was filled with wonder. He later said, “As long as our brain is a mystery, the universe, the reflection of the structure of the brain will also by a mystery.” He dedicated his life to revealing the brain’s structure by studying the anatomy of cells within the brain and the networks they form. The pictures that he drew show neurons that are beautifully complex and diverse, resembling trees with extensive intertwining root systems. The anatomy of the brain only captures one aspect of its complexity – the physiology of neurons is dynamic, multifaceted, and equally stunning. My lab approaches the brain as physiologists, striving to understand how networks of neurons support behavior in awake-freely moving animals. We approach the problem at varying levels of scale – recording from individual neurons in vitro using patch-clamp – recording from large populations of neurons in vivo using single unit recording – and recording the activity of modulatory nuclei in vivo using fiber optometry.
Most of our work focuses on the hippocampus, a structure nestled in the temporal lobe that supports learning in memory. In rodents, neurons in the hippocampus fire action potentials when animals are in specific locations within an environment. As a population, ‘place cells’ encode an animals position, and support spatial learning. We record from place cells while animals are exploring environments or learning place dependent memory tasks. We consider place cell activity as a proxy for studying the neuronal mechanisms of learning. Current projects in the lab are aimed at understanding how neuronal diversity within the hippocampus contributes to hippocampal memory coding.
Understanding brain function is only half of the story – we are also interested in understanding brain dysfunction. In particular, we study epilepsy, a neurological disorder that affects 65 million people worldwide. Epilepsy is characterized by recurring seizures, but patients often suffer from many other symptoms including sleep disorders, mood disorders, and memory impairment. In our lab we approach epilepsy from a systems level perspective and seek to understand common mechanisms for pathological activity (seizures, etc.) and cognitive impairments. Again interested in neural diversity, we aim to uncover which subnetworks in the hippocampus promote pathological activity. Furthermore, we are investigating whether neuromodulation is disrupted in epilepsy, and what impacts that would confer on hippocampal memory coding.
A Note on Curiosity
As a researcher, one of my most prized possessions is curiosity. I’m striving to build a lab in which creativity and curiosity are fundamental. We are always looking for people with similar passion to join us!