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Congratulations to Krystal Huxlin

Friday, April 29, 2022

Congratulations to Krystal Huxlin! She has been elected by the Vision Sciences Society membership to serve on the VSS Board of Directors.

Her four-year term will begin in May 2022.

Diverse minds and determined hearts make change: Forging equitability in Neuroscience

Monday, April 25, 2022

A group, mostly consisting of neuroscientists, meets bi-weekly outside the lab with a simple but powerful common purpose – to fundamentally change the bench.

“This experience has been eye-opening,” said Manuel Gomez-Ramirez, Ph.D., assistant professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester and chair of the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience Diversity Commission. “It is such a diverse group in every sense – cultural, gender, experience in both academics and non-academics – we are all able to have input and listen to each other while considering different perspectives and focusing on one problem together.”

In 2020, the Neuroscience Diversity Commission (NDC) was formed following a letter penned by the director of the Del Monte Institute, John Foxe, Ph.D., in response to the death of George Floyd.

Read More: Diverse minds and determined hearts make change: Forging equitability in Neuroscience

New research finds the risk of psychotic-like experiences can start in childhood

Monday, April 25, 2022

Dr. Dodell-Feder looking out of an MRI tubeIt has long been understood that environmental and socio-economic factors – including income disparity, family poverty, and air pollution – increase a person’s risk of developing psychotic-like experiences, such as subtle hallucinations and delusions that can become precursors to a schizophrenia diagnosis later in life. Research has long focused on young adults but now, thanks to data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, researchers at the University of Rochester have found these risk factors can be observed in pre-adolescent children.

“These findings could have a major impact on public health initiatives to reduce the risk of psychotic-like experiences,” said Abhishek Saxena, a graduate student in the department of Psychology at the University of Rochester and first author of the study recently published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. “Past research has largely focused on the biological factors that lead to development of schizophrenia spectrum disorders, but we now know that social and environmental factors can also play a large role in the risk and development of schizophrenia. And this research shows these factors impact people starting at a very young age.”

Researchers looked at data collected from 8,000 kids enrolled in the ABCD study. They found that the more urban of an environment a child lived in – proximity to roads, houses with lead paint risks, families in poverty, and income disparity – the greater number of psychotic-like experiences they had over a year’s time. These findings are in line with past research conducted in young adults, but have not been found like this in pre-adolescences.

“It is disconcerting that the association between these exposures and psychotic-like experiences are already present in late childhood,” said David Dodell-Feder, Ph.D., assistant professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and lead author of this study. “The fact that the impact of these exposures may occur as early as pre-adolescence highlights the importance of early prevention.”

This research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.

The University of Rochester Medical Center is one of 21 research sites across the country collecting data for the National Institutes of Health ABCD Study. Since 2017, 340 children from the greater Rochester area have been participating in the 10-year study. In all, the study is following 11,750 children through early adulthood looking at how biological development, behaviors, and experiences impact brain maturation and other aspects of their lives, including academic achievement, social development, and overall health.

2022 Edward Peck Curtis Award

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Neal Shah is this year’s recipient of University of Rochester Edward Peck Curtis Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Graduate student.

Please help me congratulate Neal on a job well done!

The art of smell: Research suggests the brain processes smell both like a painting and a symphony

Monday, April 4, 2022

What happens when we smell a rose? How does our brain process the essence of its fragrance? Is it like a painting – a snapshot of the flickering activity of cells – captured in a moment in time? Or like a symphony, an evolving ensemble of different cells working together to capture the scent? New research suggests that our brain does both.

“These findings reveal a core principle of the nervous system, flexibility in the kinds of calculations the brain makes to represent aspects of the sensory world,” said Krishnan Padmanabhan, Ph.D., an associate professor of Neuroscience and senior author of the study recently published in Cell Reports. “Our work provides scientists with new tools to quantify and interpret the patterns of activity of the brain.”

Researchers developed a model to simulate the workings of the early olfactory system – the network the brain relies on for smelling. Employing computer simulations, they found a specific set of connections, called centrifugal fibers, which carry impulses from other parts of the central nervous system to the early sensory regions of the brain, played a critical role. These centrifugal fibers act as a switch, toggling between different strategies to efficiently represent smells. When the centrifugal fibers were in one state, the cells in the piriform cortex – where the perception of an odor forms – relied on the pattern of activity within a given instant in time. When the centrifugal fibers were in the other state, the cells in the piriform cortex improved both the accuracy and the speed with which cells detected and classified the smell by relying on the patterns of brain activity across time.

Read More: The art of smell: Research suggests the brain processes smell both like a painting and a symphony

A key to restoring sight may be held in a drug that treats alcoholism

Friday, March 18, 2022

Michael TeliasResearchers may have found a way to revive some vision loss caused by age-related macular degeneration – the leading cause of blindness – and the inherited disease retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a rare genetic disorder that causes the breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. The drug disulfiram – marketed under the brand name Antabuse – used to treat alcoholism, may hold the key to restoring this vision loss.

“We knew the pathway that the drug disulfiram blocks to treat alcoholism was very similar to the pathway that’s hyper-activated in degenerative blindness,” said Michael Telias, Ph.D., assistant professor of Ophthalmology, Neuroscience, and Center for Visual Science at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and first author on the paper out today in Science Advances. “We expected some improvement, but our findings surpassed our expectations. We saw vision that had been lost over a long period of time preserved in those who received the treatment.”

Read More: A key to restoring sight may be held in a drug that treats alcoholism

New methods to understand how the brain responds to sounds, including singing

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

New research has identified neurons in the brain that ‘light up’ to the sound of singing, but do not respond to any other type of music. Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Biostatistics and Computational Biology Samuel Norman-Haignere, Ph.D., with the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester is first author on the paper in Current Biology that details these findings. “The work provides evidence for relatively fine-grained segregation of function within the auditory cortex, in a way that aligns with an intuitive distinction within music,” Norman-Haignere said.

The singing-specific area of the brain is located in the temporal lobe, near regions that are selective for speech and music. Researchers worked with epilepsy patients who had electrodes implanted in their brain (electrocorticography or ECOG) in order to localize seizure-related activity as a part of their clinical care. ECoG enables more precise measurements of electrical activity in the brain. “This higher precision made it possible to pinpoint this subpopulation of neurons that responds to song. This finding along with prior findings from our group give a bird’s eye view of the organization of the human auditory cortex and suggest that there are different neural populations that selectively respond to particular categories, including speech, music, and singing.”

In previous research, fMRI was used to scan the brains of participants as they listened to different types of speech and music. Norman-Haignere combined the fMRI data from this prior study in order to map the locations of song-selective neural populations, which were identified in their new ECoG study.

Read More: New methods to understand how the brain responds to sounds, including singing

Dorsey: Telemedicine Can Narrow Health Inequities

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Last week, URMC neurologist Ray Dorsey, M.D., testified before a Congressional subcommittee on how technologies like telemedicine can help to break down barriers to care for people with disabilities. The hearing is part of a legislative initiative under way by the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, which seeks to understand and address “the role that racism, ableism, and other social, structural, and political determinants have in perpetuating health and economic inequity in the U.S.” 

Read More: Dorsey: Telemedicine Can Narrow Health Inequities

Researchers provide insight into how the brain multitasks while walking

Monday, January 24, 2022

The associate professor of Neuroscience and his Del Monte Institute colleagues published a study in NeuroImage that provides evidence of how the brain takes on multiple tasks without sacrificing how either activity is accomplished. "Looking at these findings to understand how a young, healthy brain is able to switch tasks will give us better insight to what's going awry in a brain with a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer's disease," Freedman says.

Read More: Researchers provide insight into how the brain multitasks while walking

Center for Visual Science builds on 60 years of discovery

Friday, January 14, 2022

Center for Visual Science 60th anniversary leadershipFor nearly 60 years, the Center for Visual Science (CVS) has been a hub where optics, ophthalmology, neuroscience, biomedical engineering, and other disciplines are transforming our understanding of vision and how we treat vision disorders.

More than 40 labs of faculty and trainees continue a tradition that began in 1963 when visual scientist Robert Boynton founded the center.

Since then, significant advances have been made, including research by David Williams, the William G. Allyn Professor of Medical Optics and sixth director of CVS, that helped develop laser refractive correction surgeries commonly known as LASIK and also enabled researchers to look at single cells in a living eye and even observe the signals these nerve cells send to the brain.

Krystel Huxlin, associate director and co-director of training for CVS, and the James V. Aquavella professor and director of research in ophthalmology, specializes in visual recovery after stroke, and corneal wound healing. She and fellow vision scientist Wayne Knox are developing a non-surgical alternative to laser refractive correction.

New director Susan Marcos, who took the helm in July, is looking to bolster the Center’s global reputation by fostering multidisciplinary collaborations in vision science both internally at the University and internationally. She will also pursue strengthening the alumni network, recruiting talented students, and sourcing seed funding to develop a pilot program that would foster cross-disciplinary research. She aims to also develop a model that accelerates CVS research to industry.

Read More: Center for Visual Science builds on 60 years of discovery

“Education is key.” Neuroscientist Nathan A. Smith, Ph.D. ('13), returns in leadership role

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Nathan A. Smith

Nathan A. Smith, M.S. (’10), Ph.D. (’13), is returning to the University of Rochester as an associate professor of Neuroscience and associate dean for Equity and Inclusion in Research and Research Education in the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

The first Black graduate of the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Rochester, Smith sees his return to campus as a way to make sure the bright minds in underserved communities have equal education opportunities. He is eager to begin working closely with current learners and being a role model for them and finding ways to enhance the recruitment of postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and faculty of color, as well as women.

“I believe in the mission at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience,” Smith said. “I think that by putting the right people at the table, we can make a substantial change in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I want to be a part of that and make sure we get it right. Rochester has the potential to be the blueprint for other organizations. To set an example and change the future of science for all.”

Read More: “Education is key.” Neuroscientist Nathan A. Smith, Ph.D. ('13), returns in leadership role

Postdoctoral trainee Choongheon Lee and Neuroscience Graduate Program student Anjali Sinha lead new research focused on the entry of drugs into the inner ear

Friday, January 7, 2022

Choongheon Lee

The study, titled Characterizing the Access of Cholinergic Antagonists to Referent Synapses in the Inner Ear, looks to understand the rules governing drug entry into peripheral sensory end organs.

Vestibular and auditory dysfunction and their associated clinical manifestations represent a significant and increasing health burden, according to Lee and his team. Selective pharmacological targeting of distinct cellular mechanisms in the inner ear, while avoiding similar targets in the central nervous system (CNS), might offer a set of viable clinical tools and specific treatment strategies.

Read More: Postdoctoral trainee Choongheon Lee and Neuroscience Graduate Program student Anjali Sinha lead new research focused on the entry of drugs into the inner ear

Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez authors study: Research finds anxiety cues in brain even in safe environment

Monday, January 3, 2022

A team of researchers used virtual reality to understand the impact anxiety has on the brain and how brain regions interact with one another to shape behaviour.

The study has been published in the ‘Communications Biology Journal’. “These findings tell us that anxiety disorders might be more than a lack of awareness of the environment or ignorance of safety, but rather that individuals suffering from an anxiety disorder cannot control their feelings and behavior even if they wanted to,” said Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rochester and first author of the study.

“The patients with an anxiety disorder could rationally say — I’m in a safe space — but we found their brain was behaving as if it was not,” he added.

Using fMRI, the researchers observed the brain activity of volunteers with general and social anxiety as they navigated a virtual reality game of picking flowers. Half of the meadow had flowers without bees, the other half had flowers with bees that would sting them — as simulated by a mild electrical stimulation to the hand. Researchers found all study participants could distinguish between the safe and dangerous areas, however, brain scans revealed volunteers with anxiety had increased insula and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex activation — indicating that their brain was associating a known safe area to danger or threat.

“This is the first time we’ve looked at discrimination learning in this way. We know what brain areas to look at, but this is the first time we show this concert of activity in such a complex ‘real-world-like’ environment,” said Suarez-Jimenez.

“These findings point towards the need for treatments that focus on helping patients take back control of their body,” he added.

The brain differences were the only differences seen in these patients. For example, sweat responses, a proxy for anxiety, which was also measured, failed to reveal any clear differences.

Understanding the neural mechanisms by which the brain learned about the environment is the focus of Suarez-Jimenez’s research, particularly how the brain predicted what is threatening and what is safe. He used virtual reality environments to investigate neural signatures of anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His goal is to understand how people build maps in the brain that are based on experience, and the role of those maps in psychopathologies of stress and anxiety.

“For next steps in this recent research, we still need to clarify if what we found in the brain of these patients is also the case in other disorders, such as PTSD. Understanding the differences and similarities across disorders characterized by deficits in behavioral regulation and feelings in safe environments, can help us create better personalized treatment options,” he said.