NYSCF – Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Vanessa Ruta examined how the brains of fruit flies pass signals from odors to different behavioral pathways. Dr. Ruta, Rockefeller University, shows in her latest paper featured in Cell that the mushroom body, a pair of structures in insect brains, acts as a ‘switchboard’ to relay sensory information to different neuronal networks based on the fruit fly’s previous experience and context. Ruta’s Rockefeller University group of researchers concludes that a single olfactory input can manifest in various behaviors based on individual neurons receiving and passing information to different networks. The study uses imaging technology and electrophysiology to understand what happens between neurons at synapses to make sense of how fruit fly brains process odors.
NYSCF-Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Dr. Winrich Freiwald, The Rockefeller University, published his latest paper understanding how mammals make sense of faces in PLoS Biology. Faces convey an abundance of social information and Dr. Freiwald’s paper, for this first time, makes sense of how this information is exchanged between different brain regions. Brain areas that process facial information pass information to regions of the brain associated with social cognition. The research takes advantage of fMRI technology, which reveals brain activity by measuring changes in blood flow in the brain. Freiwald’s lab showed that areas of the brain associated with facial recognition are embedded in a larger brain network, which connects facial recognition to structures that support emotive, memory, and cognitive functions.
NYSCF – Robertson Investigator Dr. Feng Zhang pioneered technology to edit DNA. The system he created, CRISPR/Cas9, means scientists can now study disease, cures, and cellular functions by quickly and easily manipulating genes. Dr. Zhang, The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and The McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, published a paper in Science that investigates engineering the genome editing protein, Cas9. While the CRISPR system has proved revolutionary for scientists to study our cells, researchers have struggled with its ability to edit unintended stretches of DNA, preventing clinical application. In engineering Cas9, Dr. Zhang’s lab created a protein that reduces “off-target” effects of this breakthrough technology that lifts the entire field of biomedical research.
(Photo: Len Rubenstein, courtesy of Broad Institute Communications)
NYSCF – Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Dr. Ed Boyden, MIT, received a Breakthrough Prize, an award of $3 million, and was celebrated like a star at the Breakthrough Prize ceremony in California. The Breakthrough Prize, established by Internet pioneers such as Sergey Brin of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Ma of Alibaba, was designed to recognize scientists like the celebrities they are.
Dr. Boyden’s work is seminal in neuroscience. His research gives scientists the tools to zoom in on brain functions, isolating and studying different neurons and their interactions. In developing optogenics, he created a system that allows researchers to control neurons with light, revolutionizing neuroscientists’ capacity to understand the brain.
NYSCF – Robertson Investigator Dr. Alexander Meissner, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, along with NYSCF – Robertson Investigator Dr. Gabsang Lee, John Hopkins University, explored the features of induced pluripotent stem, iPS, cells as compared to embryonic stem cells. They showed that stem cells from embryos, and stem cells from adult cells transformed into ‘embryonic-like’ cells are functionally and molecularly the same. This is a concern that has plagued the field since iPS cells were first generated in 2007. They published their innovative research in Nature Biotechnology where they compared embryonic stem cells and iPS cells from the same donor and found no significant differences in these cells that have the power to mature into any type of cell in the human body, a concept termed ‘pluripotentcy.’
Appearing in the same issue of Nature Biotechnology, Dr. Meissner’s research team also published a study on a new method developed to characterize the pluripotency of stem cells. Their method quantifies the expression of genes involved in cell pluripotency. The “ScoreCard” created by the research team can also be utilized to characterize a variety of cells, molecules, and conditions cells live in. Both pieces of research supported by NYSCF push the scientific community toward a better understanding of stem cells so that research can best harness their power to create cures.
Read more about Dr. Zhang’s work:
NYSCF - Robertson Neuroscience Investigator Dr. Paola Arlotta, Harvard Stem Cell Institute and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, showed that neuronal networks of communication between reprogrammed neurons and the surrounding cells can be changed. Essentially, that the neighboring cells of reprogrammed neurons recognize that they are changed, and therefore change how they communicate with the 'new' cells. This work, published in Neuron, builds on Dr. Arlotta's previous finding that neurons can be reprogrammed into different neuronal types in the brains of live animals, a result that upended traditional neurobiology dogma.
This research has vast implications on understanding how neural communication works and builds circuits in early development as well as how this communication frays and deteriorates in neurodegenerative and psychiatric diseases such as autism and schizophrenia.
This October, NYSCF honored Stephen M. Ross, Jack and Jeff Gernsheimer, and Mark McCauley as stem cell heroes at the 10th Anniversary Gala. Held at Skylight at Moynihan Station, the annual Gala brought together NYSCF friends, scientists, and supporters to celebrate the past 10 years of success and to look forward to the next ten years and beyond.