Translational Behavioral Neuroscience
Background: Disorders of the nervous system manifest in the form of neurodegenerative disease (e.g., Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases), psychiatric disorders (e.g., drug addiction and alcoholism, schizophrenia, depression, and ADHD) and pervasive developmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder. The common fundamental element linking all of these nervous system disorders is that they are all characterized by disturbances in behavioral function, encompassing domains including cognition, motor control, and affect. The core emphasis linking this focus area is the importance placed on the measurement of behavior in relation to neural function and dysfunction in order to elucidate the brain mechanisms of disease symptomology. Much of the research effort is directed toward developing and improving powerful behavioral tools to probe neural function and dysfunction. From a translational viewpoint, by critically assaying behavioral function in model organisms, researchers in this focus area are able to access a highly relevant readout of nervous system function.
Research interests and capabilities: Collectively, researchers affiliated with this focus area possess an impressive array of expertise, including the ability to precisely control neural circuits through genetic technologies, to the ability to obtain sensitive readouts of brain circuit structure and function through sophisticated anatomical, neurochemical, neurophysiological and behavioral assays. Researchers routinely combine in vivo electrophysiological (Bergan, Moorman, Remage-Healey, Vazey) and neurochemical (Farrar, Pereira, Remage-Healey) monitoring techniques, as well as state-of-the-art anatomical and genetic approaches (Bergan, Moorman, Richardson, Vazey) with detailed behavioral assays. This group also uses chemogenetic and optogenetic technology to manipulate the neural circuits in awake, behaving animals (Bergan, Moorman, Vazey). This work has led to findings that have significantly enhanced our understanding of the brain circuits that are implicated in drug and alcohol addiction (Moorman, Pereira, Richardson) and depression (Farrar, Pereira). Researchers have also examined the brain mechanisms involved in cognition during menopause and aging (Lacreuse), as well as cognitive deficits in neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases (Farrar, Vazey), while ongoing research is aimed at examining the brain circuitry involved in social behavior (Bergan, Pereira) which has implications for disorders such as Autism and postpartum depression. Discovering basic causal relationships between nervous system function and behavior is paramount to the process of developing novel treatments for central nervous system diseases. The ongoing collaborations within the Translational Behavioral Neuroscience focus area, coupled with numerous potential synergies with other academic units at UMass positions our group to effectively and meaningfully pursue novel translation research efforts.
Applications: The systematic manipulation and measurement of brain function and behavior in model organisms can yield feature-rich, nuanced and highly quantitative datasets that provide clincially relevant functional readouts of nervous system function and dysfunction:
- Detailed behavioral phenotype characterization of genetically-modified organisms and validation of transgenic mouse models of disease.
- Early detection of disease onset in animal models, e.g., prodromal phase of neurodegenerative disease.
- Highly sensitive pre-clinical proof-of-concept/efficacy screening of novel therapeutics in disease research.