Society for Neuroscience 2022 Early Career Scientists’ Achievements and Research Awards
SAN DIEGO, CA – The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) will honor six early-career researchers whose work is transforming our understanding of the neural dynamics of memory, navigation, social behaviors, and disease states. Their work spans a wide range of neuroscience topics and methods, from nanometer-scale studies of synapse structure to high-flying demonstrations of the neural origins of social interactions. The awards will be presented during Neuroscience 2022, SfN's annual meeting and the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.
“This year’s Early Career Awardees exemplify the fearless creativity and tenacity needed to make fundamental discoveries in neuroscience, and the breadth of their work illustrates the diversity of approaches needed to deeply understand the interplay between neural activity, behavior,and health,” said SfN President Gina Turrigiano. “By developing novel tools and ideas, and finding the best model systems needed to illuminate their scientific questions, these young researchers remind us of the value of persistent and adventurous research approaches,” Turrigiano said.
Jennifer N. Bourne Prize in Brain Ultrastructure: Linnaea Ostroff
The recently established Jennifer N. Bourne Prize in Brain Ultrastructure recognizes early career neuroscientists for outstanding work that advances our understanding of brain structure and function at the nanometer scale. Named for Jennifer N. Bourne, an electron microscopist and core facility director who studied the structural plasticity of synapsesand died suddenly in 2021, the award recognizes researchers who are within their first five years of academic appointments. The $5,000 award is funded by Kristen M. Harris.
Neurons communicate with each other across synapses, where the tip of a signal-sending neuron comes in close proximity to the end of a signal-receiving neuron. Synapses vary in size, structure, and molecular components, and stronger synapses can support neural circuits associated with learning and memory. This year’s recipient of the Bourne Prize, Linnaea Ostroff, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, uses electron microscopy to study nanometer-scale structural details of synapses in rodents undergoing learning paradigms to understand the changes at synapses that support animal learning. Ostroff’s work has revealed important and sometimes surprising details about the role of a neuron’s protein-building machinery in learning processes. She showed that during memory-formation, a neuron’s protein-building machinery shifts toward specific individual synapses that were activated through learning, suggesting a role for local protein building in synapse strengthening. In addition, her electron microscopy work indicates that axons–the long arm-like extensions of neurons that act like a conduit for electrical signals–are capable of building new proteins locally, something previously thought to not occur in adult brains.
Ostroff’s work continues to push boundaries by combining high-resolution microscopy with molecular methods that attach fluorescent or other labels to multiple protein and cell types, which can provide richer information about the cellular and structural details of synapses. Different synapses can have unique combinations of proteins and other molecules depending on the type of neurons involved and the dynamics of brain activity, and Ostroff is developing techniques to label several proteins at once to better understand the structure of synapses all along neuronal circuits involved in learning and memory, including any potential differences between male and female animals.
Donald B. Lindsley Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience: Lyle Kingsbury
Supported by The Grass Foundation, the Donald B. Lindsey Prize in Behavioral Neuroscience recognizes an outstanding PhD thesis in the area of general behavioral neuroscience. The award was established in 1979 in honor of Donald B. Lindsley, an early trustee of the Grass Foundation, and grants recipients a $5,000 prize.
When two animals interact, their brains can become synchronized, with similar patterns of neuronal activity in each. Research by this year’s Lindsley Prize recipient, Lyle Kingsbury, shows that synchronous across the brains of mice can also predict the outcomes of some social interactions. As a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles, Kingsbury used miniature microscopes embedded in the prefrontal cortex of mice to simultaneously monitor the activity of hundreds of single neurons in pairs of awake, active animals. The prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain implicated in a wide range of social behaviors in humans and other animals. By recording detailed neuronal activity ins interacting mice, Kingsbury found two populations of neurons working together to give rise to the synchronous activity. One set of these neurons aligned with the behavior of a mouse itself and the other with the behavior of its social partner. In addition, he showed that the degree of brain synchrony between two mice correlated with competitive relationships formed between them. In one experimental set up, commonly used to test social dominance, two mice were sent down opposite ends of a narrow tube. Kingsbury found that the amount of synchrony between the rodent’s brains at the beginning of the interaction could predict whether one mouse will be subordinate and retreat down the tube. More hierarchical relationships were associated with greater synchrony, suggesting a potential functional role for brain synchrony in the characteristics of social relationships.
In separate experiments, Kingsbury identified distinct patterns of neural activity associated with the sex identity of other mice. Using optogenetic tools to experimentally change neural activity, he showed that activation of neurons involved in the sex-specific signaling patterns could influence preferential behavior towards males and females. Kingsbury is now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, where he is studying how neuronal activity in the prefrontal cortex can enable flexible adjustment of decision strategies for natural behavior, such as foraging and social interaction.
Nemko Prize in Cellular or Molecular Neuroscience: Jenny Lu
The Nemko Prize in Cellular or Molecular Neuroscience, supported by The Nemko Family, recognizes a young neuroscientist's outstanding PhD thesis advancing our understanding of molecular, genetic, or cellular mechanisms underlying higher brain function and cognition. Recipients receive a $2,500 prize.
While navigating through the world, an animal’s brain must coordinate many distinct pieces of information, including visual clues about its surroundings, the direction the animal is facing, and how fast and which direction its body is moving. This year’s Nemko Prize recipient is Jenny Lu, a student in the Harvard-MIT MD-PhD program, for her work revealing dynamic neurobiological details of navigation.
In her thesis work at Harvard Medical School, Lu examined how navigation information is encoded and processed in the fly brain. Lu and colleagues tethered flies onto a spherical treadmill set inside a virtual reality environment and monitored neural activity during walking behavior. She identified a neural circuit that combines inputs on the orientation of the fly and the body-centered velocity of the insect. Using a highly detailed map of the connections in the fly brain, she discovered how the wiring of the circuit converts these inputs into a representation of the fly’s velocity in the external environment. This work established the first cellular mechanism of how the brain transforms vector-based information from body-to world-centric coordinate frames.
Peter and Patricia Gruber International Research Award: Marianna Zazhytska and Manuel Valero
The Peter and Patricia Gruber International Research Award in Neuroscience recognizes two young neuroscientists for outstanding research and educational pursuit in an international setting. Recipients each receive $25,000 prize. The prize is supported by The Gruber Foundation. This year’s recipients are Marianna Zazhytska and Manuel Valero.
Loss of smell may be a harbinger of Alzheimer’s disease as well as COVID-19 infection. One of this year’s Gruber Award recipients, Marianna Zazhytska, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University, was in the early stages of studying Alzheimer’s related anosmia–a partial or complete loss of smell–when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. When reports of anosmia in COVID-19 patients began to emerge, she pivoted to studying how the respiratory virus could be affecting the function of olfactory receptors–the complex proteins embedded in the surface of nasal neurons that latch onto odor molecules. In both humans and hamsters, Zazhytska found that SARS-CoV-2 infection causes widespread reduction in the activity of olfactory receptor genes and related signaling molecules. She linked this reduced activity to a disruption in the organization of the genome of olfactory neurons, even though these cells were not directly infected by the virus. These findings suggest that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can harm the function of the cells it doesn’t directly infect. When Zazhytska returned to her work on Alzheimer’s disease, she found commonalities between the cellular response to Alzheimer’s and SARS-CoV-2 infection, including disruption of the genomic architecture of olfactory receptors. Her work suggests that the olfactory system may act like a canary in a coal mine, warning of impending disease by shutting down its activity. In future work as an independent scientist, she plans to investigate what triggers the rapid disruption of the genomic architecture of olfactory receptor genes, and further explore the possibility that detecting olfactory system disruptions could help predict and better understand neurodegeneration.
Every night, our brain enters a period of deep sleep known as slow-wave sleep, during which the brain cycles through periods of activity and silence, known as up states and down states. Previously, it was thought that no neurons in the brain fire during the silent periods, but Manuel Valero, a postdoctoral fellow at Neuroscience Institute, NYU Langone Medical Center and a recipient of the 2022 Gruber Award, discovered a class of neurons in the cortex that is active during this otherwise quiet time. By recording the activity of over 10,000 neurons in waking and sleeping rodents, he found that these cells also had oppositional behavior during wakefulness–they were quiet when other neurons were active. But the specific identity of these contrarian neurons remained uncertain. Valero used optogenetic methods–through which researchers can use light sources to control the activity of genetically-engineered neurons–to test many candidate neuron types. Through this work, he revealed the cellular identity of the down-state neurons, thereby making an exceptional discovery of a new cell type in the cortex. Valero and colleagues further showed that disrupting the activity of the down-state active neurons interfered with memory formation. In other work, Valero developed a novel method for studying low-level neuron activity in waking mice, with which he revealed how opposing activating and silencing signals are integrated by place cells–hippocampal neurons that encode information about an animal’s location in its environment. Valero plans to return to his home country of Spain as an independent investigator at the Cajal Institute in Madrid, where he will continue recording from large groups of neurons to decipher how activating and silencing brain signals combine to supportnavigation and memory.
Young Investigator Award: Michael Yartsev
The Young Investigator Award recognizes the outstanding achievements and contributions by a young neuroscientist who leads an independent research group. The $15,000 prize is supported by Sunovion Pharmaceuticals.
The lives of bats are more complex than they might seem. As consequence, its brain needs to undertake, and solve, many complex tasks. While roosting in the cave, bats needs to maintain a lively communication with other members of the colony; then, when emerging for an evening flight, bats need to navigate a three-dimensional world. Finally, upon arrival at the long-awaited foraging site they face the challenge of collective social behaviors (such as foraging) while keeping an eye (and ear) out for friendly and unfriendly behaviors among other bats.What is most incredible is how well bats solve all of these complex problems. The winner of this year's Young Investigator Award, Michael Yartsev, associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is leveraging the extraordinary behavioral capacities of fruit bats to understand the neural origins of spatial coding, flexible communication, and social behavior. As a neuroscientist and engineer, Yartsev goes after big questions in the field that are often difficult (or even impossible) to tackle with traditional model system and further develops the tools needed for his research.
With custom flight rooms and wireless brain-recording instruments, Yartsev has shown that patterns of neural activity in the hippocampus–a brain region associated with navigation and memory –can encode information about a bat’s past, present and future location to guide the animal along continuous paths of movement. In addition, using tiny wireless microscopes his lab has shown that when bats are flying in a familiar setting, the neural activity in their hippocampus is stable over weeks of different flights. Separately, Yartsev has established a multi-animal wireless technology that enables recording neural activity from many brains at the same time to better study neural mechanisms related to real-world social behaviors. With these tools, he has shown that the neuronal activity of two (or more) interacting bats becomes highly synchronized, and this synchronization is stronger between bats that spend more time together. By extending the study of sociality to groups his lab demonstrated how both intra and inter-brain signals contains information about key features that are needed for communicating in groups such the behavioral features of group members and the relationships between them. Finally, in his vocal learning work, Yartsev has explored the bat’s ability to adapt its vocal communication. By playing recorded sounds that have frequencies within the bats’ vocal range, the exposed animals adapted their vocalizations to other frequencies that minimize interference with the perturbing noise. This work demonstrates that, like humans, bats can adjust their vocal communications in response to external inputs. Yartsev continues to delineate the anatomical pathways and neural computations that can facilitate flexible vocal control. This establishes the bat as a potentially powerful model species for the study of vocal learning –a core human trait. This work could further help reveal how these circuits go awry in communication disorders.
Collectively, Yartsev’s broad approach centers on deciphering the neural basisof natural behaviors to uncover general principles of brain function.
The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) is an organization of basic scientists and clinicians who study the brain and the nervous system.