Dr. Nim Tottenham visits the MIND Institute for the Distinguished Lecture Series

tottenhamDr. Tottenham began her talk at the MIND with the statement that it takes a long time for humans to develop emotion regulation “as any parent can attest to.” Her lecture was part of the MIND Institute’s Distinguished Lecture Series. Talks which both researchers and members of the public attend to learn from scholars studying diverse topics relating to development.

Dr. Tottenham explained that her lab studies early experiences that lead to differences in emotional functioning in adulthood. Dr. Tottenham explained that in children there are key differences in the neural circuits underlying emotion. Specifically, in adults, connections from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala are useful for controlling fearful experiences. Children do not show these connections. However, children show “buffering” of fear when in the presence of a parent. This buffering is so strong that children will even preferentially explore a “fear-conditioned” stimulus if they learned in the presence of their parent. Adolescents and adults do not show these behaviors. Additionally, they show mature PFC-amygdala connectivity.

Why then, does it take so long for this circuitry to develop?

Dr. Tottenham studies this question by asking families to participate who have adopted children from international institutions. In the previously  institutionalized children, approximately 60% of 5-9 year olds show a more adult-like pattern in their neural activity. These children show lower anxiety than previously institutionalized peers who do no show the adult-like pattern. The children with the adult-like pattern also do not show the parental buffering seen in typically developing children. This research indicates that the accelerated circuitry development is an adaptation to their harsh environment. There’s a trade-off, however, because showing parental buffering is associated with fewer internalizing problems (such as depression) in adulthood.

The talk was enjoyed by researchers and the public alike. I look forward to seeing further work from Dr. Tottenham.

Preclinical Discovery in Mouse Models showing symptoms of ASD

CrawleyTalk On Friday, February 26th Dr.s Tatiana Kazdoba, Prescott Leach, and Jacqueline Crawley presented on their work at the UC Davis MIND Institute. In Dr. Crawley’s lab, scientist’s use genetic mouse models of autism and neurodevelopmental disorders. Dr. Crawley opened with an explanation of the usefulness of these mouse models. She explained that though it doesn’t make sense to think of these mice as having autism in the same way humans have autism, they still show some of the characteristics of the disorder. These characteristics may include social deficits or repetitive behaviors. When a mouse model reliably shows one of these symptoms, scientists can attempt to reduce the symptom using pharmaceuticals. If the pharmaceutical is effective in the mouse, it may also be effective humans.

The three scientists discussed progress they have made on inter-related projects examining different genetic lines of mice. Mouse lines and pharmaceutical interventions are selected based on multiple criteria. They must show genetic relevance (the genes affected in the mice must also be affected in humans), symptom relevance, generalizabity (for example, working in both mice and rats), feasibility, and replicability. Further, the lab examines behavioral, EEG, and physiological measures.

The projects are already beginning to show results, but at differing levels of public report. I look forward to seeing more results and progress over time.

Navigating through space with Dr. May-Britt Moser

Genetic Expressions

stagepic“Wow, nice to see you all,” she said peering out from the bright lights of her stage, smiling at the crowd of over 29, 000 conference attendees. These were the first words Dr. May-Britt Moser spoke when she took the stage for SFN’s 2015 Presidential lecture last Tuesday. The question on everyone’s mind: What does this Nobel Prize winning scientist possibly have to share with us tonight? 

Retrospectively, a few key phrases immediately come to mind: Flintstone. Rats. Rats riding cars. Grids. Speed. Pedunculopontine tegmental nucleus of the mesencephalic locomotor region. Right. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’d like to actually go through the (old and new) data she presented, but first —

A word on neuronal naming conventions: Stimulus-responsive cells are named based on the specific stimulus parameter they are most sensitive to. In other words, they fire (or in the words of May-Britt Moser: pop-pop-pop-pop-pop!) when they are presented with a stimulus they like. For example a flapperdoodle cell…

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Dr.s Randi Hagerman and Norman Brule report on the Clinical Trials Program at the latest MIND Institute Research Seminar Series

MINDRSS_Oct23The bi-weekly MIND Institute Research Seminar Series continued on October 23 with a presentation by Dr.s Randi Hagerman and Norman Brule. Dr. Hagerman kicked off the presentation with a discussion of the importance of this program. Clinical trials at the MIND Institute typically consist of children with neurodevelopmental delays trying treatments, or clinicians looking for potential biomarkers. Though many clincial trials are drug trials, others include probiotics (Dr. Kathy Angkustsiri) and therapeutic video games (Dr.s Marjorie Solomon and Julie Schweitzer). Dr. Hagerman explained the importance of these trials as an interface between basic science and what the parents really care about — improvements in their kids.

The clinical trails program at the MIND facilitates all parts of the clinical trials process, including regulatory documents, budget negotiation, protocol visits, data entry, and ensures guidelines are followed. The hard work of the team resulted in a “squeaky clean” audit from the FDA, as well as AAHRPP certification, a very high standard in human research studies.

Dr. Hagerman additionally presented results from one of the studies. She indicated exciting results in improvements on visual perception, fine motor, and composite scores in children, however noted how difficult it is to pick outcome measures before beginning a trial.

Future directions for the team include a host of new and exciting trials, as well as incorporating outcome measures and interventions from other teams at the MIND Institute.

Center for Mind and Brain kicks off the academic year with Idea Blitz and BBQ

CMB_DataBlitzAttendees at the fifth annual Center for Mind and Brain Idea Blitz heard exciting talks from five CMB faculty members.

Dr. Simona Ghetti kicked off the event by describing new neuroimaging work on infantile amnesia. The study uses a clever paradigm to examine if an increase in dentate gyrus and CA3 volume positively or negatively predicts memory performance. Toddlers are asleep during the scan, but the team is able to get functional measures in addition to the structural by playing a song the participants had previously encountered either forward or in reverse.

Dr. Tony Shahin spoke next challenging the traditional explanation of the McGurk effect. The McGurk effect is observed when participants view a speaker whose lip patterns do not match the audio signal (usually “ba” versus “pa”). This effect is usually attributed to fusion of the signal in auditory and visual cortex, but Dr. Shahin proposes a model where visual cortex directly affects the representation in auditory cortex.

Next, Dr. John Henderson described a new neuroimaging technique with an exciting name. FIRE (FIxation REgistered) fMRI uses co-registered eye-tracking and fMRI signals. Dr. Henderson will use this technique to examine prediction in language. While participants are reading a paragraph, the fMRI signal can be related to how well the fixated work fits expectations and how constrained (predictable) it is.

Dr. John Olichney gave a rapid fire presentation of his new R01, which will use ERPs to improve detection and treatment of Alzheimers Disease. Dr. Olichney explained that ERPs are sensitive, and thus may aid in early detection of Alzheimers Disease, provide a measure of treatment response, track disease progress, or detect potential mechanisms for how therapies work.

Finally, Dr. Steve Luck asked how we are able to complete tasks we had never done before. For example, if a friend asks us to “get the big blue bowl from the cabinet to the right of the microwave?” how are we able to complete this task with no training or feedback? Dr. Luck explained that while humans can complete these novel tasks easily, neural network models generally require lots of training and cannot rapidly switch between tasks. He plans to use a combinatorial task generator to make an enormous task space for undergraduates to complete in the lab (with no practice or feedback) so that he can propose biologically plausible neural network models to explain this behavior.

UCD launches application for FUTURE Program


I recently attended an information session for UC Davis’s FUTURE program. You can find much of the information about this program (and apply for the certificate track) at the website.

The information session was led by Dr. Jen Greenier and Stacy Hayashi. They opened with an explanation for why the FUTURE program was started. In 2012, the NIH Workforce Initiative reported that graduate and post-doctoral training programs need to train scientists in the biomedical and life sciences fields for a wide range of career options, rather than exclusively for academic settings. Additionally, they said that such training should not increase the length of time of training. This report led to the BEST initiative. UC Davis is one of only seventeen institutions to receive a BEST award, a grant that the institution uses to broaden training for graduate students and post docs. At UC Davis, this grant led to the FUTURE program.

The tracks of the FUTURE program are described thoroughly at the website, so I will keep the descriptions brief. There are two tracks, the certificate track, and the self-directed track. For the certificate track (which requires an application), students complete nine professional development workshops, covering topics such as individual development plans, interviews, and resume building. These workshops are expected to occur on Tuesday mornings between January 12 and March 8 (though I don’t think that is set in stone yet). Following this process, trainees will meet with a career advisor regularly to discuss their goals, primarily relating to securing a full or part-time internship in an area of interest. Internships can be on or off campus, full or part-time, and can occur up to 6 months following a student’s graduation (or the end of a post-doc’s appointment).

The self-directed track provides similar opportunities, but on a sign-up basis.

Additionally, trainees are able to apply for a career exploration fund. This fund could be used to attend a workshop or bring in a guest speaker.

One thing I found exciting about the program, is the results and recommendations will be reported to the NIH at the end of the five-year grant. So in addition to individual career development, trainees will be contributing the NIH initiative to broaden training.

Last year Tahoe, this year Pt Reyes: The UC Davis Neuroscience Retreat


Photo taken by Dr. Tony Simon @22qUCDMIND

Every summer, at UC Davis, a handful of first and second-year neuroscience graduate students work together with the amazing administrators of our graduate group for one purpose: organize, plan and execute the annual UCD Neuroscience retreat at one of two locations: Lake Tahoe or Point Reyes. Planning includes everything from: recruiting faculty and student speakers from the group, inviting a special guest lecturer, securing deposits and assigning rooms, choosing snack and coffee packages, coordinating rides and setting up the entertainment portion of the evening. This year, our hard working organizers were: Lauren Fink, Jamie Krueger, Jon Wong and Tyler Manning and our special guest lecturer was Dr.John Huguenard from Stanford University.

The keynote lecture by Dr.Huguenard was less of a lecture and more of a classroom-style conversation. Alongside interesting data and historical facts, Dr. Huguenard peppered our group with “quiz questions” to keep us engaged and actively participating.


The UC Davis Neuroscience retreat is an annual event and, as such, includes a few key traditions:

  • Hats in honor of Dr. Barbara Chapman (next year, let’s do more of these)
  • Officially welcoming our first-years into the cohort
  • Celebrating the achievements of our group
  • Fun, lively (and fiercely competitive) gaming


… and we also added a few new items to this list, which we hope will develop into long-standing traditions:

  • We were joined by students and faculty at UC Merced
  • We began tweeting like there was no tomorrow (#neuroretreat15)
  • We eventually took the evening dance party outside to a huge field and danced the night away under the moonlight


As games begin to wind down, this group (left to right: Dr. Elva Diaz, Danny Sanculi, Jenny Mohn, Darlene Archer) start pumping the music and warming up the dance floor 

 As always, we couldn’t have done this without our lovely administrator Cristeta Rillera – so thank you. Until next year!


Cristeta Rillera & Anahita Hamidi enjoying lunch and “coffee talk” at Marconi Center

The Modular Brain: Perspectives in Neuroscience with Mark D’Esposito

Mark Desposito

The Perspectives in Neuroscience Seminar Series 2015-16 edition kicked off this past Thursday, September 24th with an engaging lecture by Dr. Mark D’Esposito of UC Berkeley. After spending some time convincing the UC Davis group of neuroskeptics that fMRI can, and does indeed, pick up on segregated patterns of activity across the brain, Dr.D’Esposito shared his lab’s data on the modular (yet integrated) brain. His research team assessed whole-brain network structure in a set of patients with various types of focal brain lesions. Interestingly, those lesions found in areas deemed “connectors” (important hubs facilitating between-network communication) resulted in greater changes in the overall network structure of the brain than did lesions of comparable size elsewhere (i.e. not connectors). Furthermore, the local perturbation in one hemisphere of the brain had widespread effects on the rest of the network as a whole. In the words of Gratton and Nomura:

“These findings fundamentally revise our understanding of the remote effects of focal brain damage and may explain numerous puzzling cases of functional deficits that are observed following brain injury.” – Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24(6):1275-85, 2012 

Thus, despite the time spent discussing the modularity of different brain networks and areas, the inevitable fact that networks are also, undeniably, connected to one another remains. Or in Dr. D’Esposito’s own words: “to summarize, the brain is mostly modular”. Importantly, however, this modular view has real clinical implications. For example, in a more recent study conducted by his research team, modularity is predictive of patient responsiveness to cognitive brain training. Additionally, the lesions found at specific “connectors” are linked to various predictable brain diseases. Work is still ongoing.

After the lecture, a group of graduate students and post docs had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr.D’Esposito and pick his brain about training students, running a lab, setting up a synergistic team, and measuring your success as a scientist.

It was a strong start to our Perspective in Neuroscience Seminar Series (which we will be indexing on Twitter using hashtag #PINSS15 from now on, so stay tuned!) A link to the schedule of upcoming talks in the series can be found here.

UC Davis and UCLA host Statewide Science Informing Policy Symposium on Early Psychosis: Prevention & Early Intervention

Genetic Expressions

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 5.21.22 PM

On Thursday September 17th, 2015 the Behavioral Health Centers of Excellence (BHCOE) at UC Davis and UCLA will host their first “Science Informing Policy Symposium” at the Sacramento Education Building, 4610 X Street Lecture Hall 2222. The daylong conference will kickoff at 8am and will include a series of lectures and panel discussions. The emphasis of this year’s symposium will be disseminating information about early-intervention and prevention of mental health disorders, using evidence-based medicine. From the press release:

“A gathering of mental health experts from across the nation will examine how evidence-based research can advance treatments — and improve lives — for young people developing serious mental illness is the focus of a daylong symposium aimed at the agencies that most often deliver those therapies: county, state and national mental-health services providers.”

I will be hosting a Twitter chat under the handle @UCDBrainHealth. You can follow the conversation using #SIPS15 and…

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The Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis Puts its Neuroscience Tools to Good Use

Genetic Expressions

These days it seems that neuroscience and its fancy new tools are in the news — a lot. Coming off the heels of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative announcement in April 2013, this attention is entirely unsurprising and timely. From the extensively covered optogenetics, to the controversial and non-invasive method of transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS), to the science-fiction like promise of CLARITY (a 3D visualization technique of intact rodent brains), it seems that neuroscientists are unstoppable. With these technologies in hand, the relevant question has become: how do we most effectively implement these tools to answer the most pressing research questions of our society today? 

cam carter at ucd

Dr. Cameron Carter, Director of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and UC Davis Imaging Research Center addressed some of these issues in a public lecture, this past Monday, at the UC Davis Health Center in Sacramento entitled Brain Research: New Discoveries and Breakthroughs at UC Davis

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