It has been one year since philanthropists Tianqiao Chen and Chrissy Luo announced a $115 million gift to launch a campuswide neuroscience initiative for interdisciplinary brain research. Today, December 5, Caltech breaks ground on the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Neuroscience Research Building at Caltech. The building will be located at the northwest corner of campus.
"This is a symbolic but important step towards creating a beautiful new space that will foster transformative advances in neuroscience research, through collaborations at the interface between different disciplines," says David Anderson, director of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience, Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience Leadership Chair, Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. "Such research is being further enabled by the half-million dollars in seed funding for new projects recently announced by the Chen Institute."
Recently, Caltech announced its first round of Chen Institute research grants. Thirteen projects led by 19 Caltech faculty received funding. Three of these projects are highlighted below.
"Molecular Basis for the Antidepressant effects of Ketamine"—The T&C Chen Center for Systems Neuroscience
Henry Lester, professor of biology
Matt Thomson, assistant professor of computational biology
In the last few years, ketamine has emerged as an effective drug for treating clinical depression and chronic pain. Despite its use, the molecular mechanism underlying these effects is still poorly understood.
"We theorize that ketamine increases the release of a certain neurotransmitter, called glutamate, which leads to increased synaptic connectivity in the brain and improved mood," says Lester. "To test this, we will take neurons from the hippocampus of a mouse and grow them in a petri dish—essentially creating a functioning little brain in the lab—and observe ketamine's effects."
In parallel, Thomson will be using large-scale gene expression profiling methods to examine ketamine's effects on individual cells within the neural cultures.
"To analyze the data, we will construct statistical models of the neural cell populations as they respond to the drug to determine how ketamine is acting on cellular pathways across many different cell types/classes," says Thomson. "These computational methods could help us broadly understand drug action in a heterogeneous tissue such as the brain."
"Electrode pooling: A method to boost the yield of multi neuron recordings"—The T&C Chen Brain-Machine Interface Center
Markus Meister (PhD '87), Anne P. and Benjamin F. Biaggini Professor of Biological Sciences; Executive Officer for Neurobiology
In order to understand the inner workings of the brain, researchers need to be able to record the electrical signals from neurons. This is typically done by inserting an electrode into the desired region of the brain, where it measures the signals from individual neurons and transmits them to a computer via a thin wire. Meister aims to make this technique more efficient—and thus less invasive—by connecting a single wire to multiple electrodes in a process called electrode pooling.
"A wire connected to multiple electrodes could record from multiple neurons, reducing the number of wires needed and preventing unnecessary damage to the brain," he says. "Of course, with only one wire, how can we know from which neuron a signal is coming from? To address this, we are working on a clever algorithm to unmix multiple signals on one wire."
"A Novel Paradigm to Investigate Human Intention and Agency: A Neuroscience and Philosophy Collaboration"—The T&C Chen Center for Social and Decision Neuroscience
Steven Quartz, professor of philosophy
Christopher Hitchcock, J. O. and Juliette Koepfli Professor of Philosophy
Shinsuke Shimojo, Gertrude Baltimore Professor of Experimental Psychology
Daw-An Wu, research scientist
Uri Maoz, visitor in neuroscience
Decades ago, a scientist named Benjamin Libet ran an experiment that suggested that one can predict, by looking at a person's brain patterns, what that person will do before they report being consciously aware that they are going to do it. A team of neuroscientists and philosophers at Caltech are partnering to explore Libet's argument rigorously by conducting experiments to measure the timing of a person's intentions and awareness.
"If the decision to move is made unconsciously, and you're only later consciously aware of that decision, this could suggest that voluntary action works differently than we think it does," says Hitchcock. "We've always thought that when we consciously make a decision to do something, that conscious decision then initiates the physical neurological processes. However, some experimental results suggest the opposite! This raises interesting questions about the nature of free will."