Yao Chen, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Washington University School of Medicine, has received a $500,000 grant from the Mathers Foundation. The funds will support her research on neuromodulators—molecules in the brain that can affect learning, behavior, emotions and more—and how the conditions and experiences of the cell they’re acting upon affect neuromodulators’ function.
“The interesting idea here is that neuromodulator information, even if it’s the same, can be interpretated in different ways,” says Chen. She likens it to how two people might hear the same speech, but their life experiences alter the take home message—similarly, two cells, or even the same cell at different time points, might respond to a neuromodulator differently. “We’re interested in exploring this heterogeneity because we feel it’s a feature of the brain and not a bug,” Chen adds.
Neuromodulators are often the targets of psychiatric medications, which are known to have variable effects on patients. “It’s too early for us to say if this cellular level of variable interpretation could eventually explain the organismal response,” says Chen, “but it’s a long-term idea we want to consider.”
To decode why a cell responds to a neuromodulator in a particular way, the Chen lab has developed custom microscopes and software to monitor activity of signals inside the cell over time, rather than at a specific instance as traditional biochemical methods allow. With support from the Mathers grant, Chen’s team will use this equipment to explore how neurons’ activities affect neuromodulator function and how neuromodulators affect one another.
Last year, Chen received an R01 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to support her investigations into how neuromodulators are interpreted by the spatial and temporal features of signals inside the cell.
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Dr. Chen has opportunities available for a research technician, staff scientist, senior scientist and postdoctoral research associate to join her growing team.