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NRP Blog

May 2019 – Dr. Alyssa Brewer

The idiom, killing two birds with one stone, perfectly summarizes the journey of Dr. Brewer as a physician-scientist. Dr. Brewer is an Assistant Professor of the Department of Cognitive Sciences at UCI, and is a local from Turtlerock, Irvine. However, Dr. Brewer moved away from home  to the Bay area to pursue her undergraduate degree at Stanford University. During her undergraduate years, Dr. Brewer joined multiple research labs, some of which had topics more suited to her interests while others seemed simply unfitting in what she wished to research. Despite those adversities, Dr. Brewer continued to do research by examining various topics in different labs.

Like many undergraduate students, Dr. Brewer was still unsure of her future during her undergraduate years. So, she took a gap-year between her undergraduate and postgraduate studies to reflect on her future endeavors and potential career choices. The transition from undergrad to graduate school, according to Dr. Brewer, changes because you only focus on your interests within your field of research. The same idea applies to the transition from undergrad to medical school because of the competitive nature of the various programs and demands that come from the classroom. Therefore, Dr. Brewer highly recommends to take some time off after undergraduate because it is a suitable time to contemplate about your future.  

Not only did she advise us to take a gap-year, but she also told us to look at other opportunities, which are often ignored by those who rush into the next level of education. She listed many examples such as becoming a full-time lab manager in a research lab, doing clinical hours to build up a resume, or even better to just take a break before diving back into the life of academia or medical school. All these opportunities potentially may increase your chances of getting into graduate/medical school and broaden your experiences in life as a whole.

Dr. Brewer’s lab focuses on auditory, visual and multi-sensory neuroscience to investigate the fundamental organization of visual and auditory cortices as well as the role of plasticity in these areas. The Brewer lab primarily uses multiple neuroimaging techniques such as MRI, fMRI, and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to map the organization of visual and auditory cortices and examine cortical plasticity. To better understand the essence of plasticity in the visual cortex of subjects with scotomas, which are acute blind spots, we read one of Dr. Brewer’s journal articles and discussed the power of neuroimaging tools to investigate the effects on the visual cortex of subjects with scotomas. The purpose of this article is to determine the magnitude and impact of the difference between rod and cone photoreceptors, which are cells that respond to light, on cortical processing. Here, they used fMRI to elucidate cortical rod pathways and identify the differences between rod and cone signals in the visual cortex. We learned that the signals of these photoreceptors are processed similarly across the visual cortex. Furthermore, we also read another article of Dr. Brewer on the various maps of the auditory cortex to better grasp and appreciate its basic organization. The purpose of this article is to eventually comprehend the neural foundation of auditory behavior and inputs of speech processing by studying the organization of the auditory cortex. In particular, they focused on the role of auditory field maps (AFMs) on representing a spectrum of sounds, and measured these field maps using neuroimaging techniques. Holistically, we learned that AFMs can be used to further investigate specific stages of auditory processing, speech perception and sensory integration behaviors.

Dr. Brewer’s lab can be found on the fourth floor of the social science labs (SSL) building. There she showed us her lab set up, which mostly comprised of the various computers that RAs will use for data input, coding, and most importantly, hand coding fMRI scans for the various projects that are ongoing within the lab. Of course, the fMRI machines are located elsewhere on campus. The tour itself was relatively short; however, we got to sit down with Dr.Brewer and Dr.Barton (another lead research within the Mind S.P.A.C.E lab) to further discuss the topics being explored within the lab. Chronic pain, neuroplasticity/cortical mapping for various sensory processes, and clinical topics were all presented as future projects or projects in production within the lab.

However, the most amusing part of the lab tour was the visual reversal goggles! The headset was constructed with prism and mirrors in order to reverse our field of view (right becomes left, and left becomes right). This headset was used during Dr.Brewer’s and Dr.Barton’s papers on visual cortex changes based on genetic differences within individuals to see who adjusted to this visual reversal faster. All of us were allowed the attempt to peak into these goggles to briefly experience what it would have been like to be a participant in their study. Of course, we didn’t have to wear them 24/7 for two weeks straight like the participants within that study did, but it was still a nice snippet!

Another highlight to the tour was the vast insight Dr. Brewer and Dr.Barton provided in terms of potential career paths, and their journey’s to get where they are today. Dr. Brewer, being the first woman in science whom we have spotlighted, and also being a mother in such a rigorous field, spoke about the hardships it is to start a family. She began by recounting how she felt she was, by happenstance, given the title of pioneer for falling pregnant during grad school as she was the first female her advisors had known of at the time to go through such an experience. Luckily she was given the time she needed to balance both pregnancy and her studies, but stressed the unfortunate reality that most women are not awarded that ‘privilege’. While unveiling that truth, she remained confident that she would not have changed her experience and encourages us women and even men, to not shy away from starting a family while pursuing a career in science.

Nu Rho Psi at UCI

April 2019 – Dr. Sunil Gandhi

“I identify more as an explorer. The age of exploration of the Earth, in terms of geography, is done. The age of exploration of the universe is still beyond our reach in terms of direct exploration. But, we can explore the brain. I think I am a brain explorer,” said Dr. Sunil Gandhi, our Spotlight Neuroscientist of the Month of April 2019, during our luncheon. Dr. Gandhi is an associate professor in Neurobiology and Behavior in the School of Biological Sciences at UCI. Throughout the spotlight events, Dr. Gandhi was very approachable and encouraging. His fascination with neuroscience arose when he first saw the different neural circuits laid out in a book about the human brain. Dr. Gandhi’s interest in neuroscience further grew when he realized that the brain was a vault of secrets that neuroscientists have been trying to crack open for all of human history,  from the ancient philosophers to the modern neuroscientists. Instead of going on vacations, he would attend the APA meetings with his mom who was a child psychiatrist – so neuroscience has always been, in many ways, embedded in his genes. Dr. Gandhi likes that the field of neuroscience is diverse and how many different fields play a major role in forming it into the unique science that it is. He was able to combine his knowledge of computer science, which he had originally intended to go into, with his current research. Not only did we hear Dr. Gandhi’s life and research experiences during our luncheon, but we also got to learn from him at his colloquium.

In the expansive field that is neuroscience, it is difficult to decide what it is you want to devote your years of academia to. Do you want to find a solution for Alzheimer’s? Cure addiction? Lend a hand in uncovering the underpinnings of depression? Dr. Gandhi’s research has approached all of these questions. Discoveries in neuroscience do not exist in a vacuum, therefore research on one topic most likely will lead to an interdisciplinary effort.  The way to get started, he explains, is to begin by asking yourself what the biggest questions in science are. Dr. Gandhi’s question just happened to be one that many scientists believed to be impossible: Is the brain capable of accepting new neurons?

“To me this was an interesting question; however, when I asked my advisor about it he told me it was not possible.”

The fact that people were so quick to dismiss his idea gave him the drive to pursue it in spite of everyone’s doubts. As Dr. Ghandi took us down memory lane, he spoke about the fact that he was curious to find an answer to a question that in the mind of many scientists seemed to be unreasonable at that time, but as he said he never gave up. Thus, his lab focuses on a previously unheard of method of GABA cell transplantation. Through his research, his work exists at the frontier of neuroscience as  his lab implements a method that many scientists did not think would be feasible. Listening to his experience of pursuing a passion in the face of naysayers and how he stands for what he believes in was inspiring to us all – not only as budding neuroscientists, but as young scholars getting ready to take on the world.

The primary goal of Dr. Gandhi’s lab is to understand the neural circuitry regulating plasticity of the visual cortex. To get a better grasp of the mechanisms involved in plasticity of the visual cortex, we read one of Dr. Gandhi’s journal article and discussed the role and impact of inhibitory neurons in adult visual cortex of visually impaired mice. The purpose of the article is to restore normal vision by adding an extra critical period and rewiring the damaged circuits involved in vision. A behavioral test, such as the Morris water maze or visual water task, was performed to see the effect of adding inhibitory neurons into the visual cortex, which opens another critical period. We learned that introducing these inhibitory neurons into the visual cortex, through transplantation, of mice deprived of binocular vision indeed creates a second critical period, rescuing vision in these mice. Dr. Gandhi is also interested in developing novel methods to better study the neural circuitry of the visual cortex. To further comprehend the concept of brain computer interface (BCI), which is indirectly related to his research, Dr. Gandhi provided us an article on BCI’s impact on Locked-in syndrome patients, who are paralyzed. The purpose of this article is to assess the performance of patients who rely on neural activity to spell words, for example. We learned that paralyzed (Locked-in syndrome) patients are able to communicate through using neural activity received by the implanted electrodes in the brain that are calculated by the computer. This phenomenon relates to imaging methods that Dr. Gandhi use in his lab.

We first took some time to introduce ourselves to Dr. Gandhi as well as get to know him and learn more about his research as well as his involvement outside of the lab. Dr. Gandhi is very proud of his research assistants in his lab. He said that many of them have helped to publish research that will have significance in the neuroscience field.  First, we met with one research assistant who showed us the mapping of the brain of the rats who had their eyes sutured in order to see the significance of temporary blindness during critical periods of development. The research assistant said that they need to be very careful to not alarm the rats. If they do the sutures correctly, the rats do not notice; but if they do them wrong, the rats may try to scratch them off. We also met another research assistant who is pursuing his MD/PhD and he talked to us about wanting to do both so that he would have options to help people as well as pursue research. We were also shown various videos regarding their work on the different images they have captured during their brain scans.

Next, Dr. Gandhi showed us the room where he and his team  have a machine that can map the physical brain onto a computer. With special treatment of the brain, they are able to make it appear translucent, which helps for tracking processes of the many neurons, axons, dendrites, and their pathways. They can also make parts of the brain with different colors on the computer to further analyze these processes and pathways. He wants to organize a program known as Neuroscholars inspired by the Berkeley Scholars program, which would connect students interested in neuroscience to a large research program of other students, faculty, and research labs. He wants to create more opportunities for students to get involved because he wants to make it less of a field of “who you know” and more about giving everyone a chance. This is especially important because mapping the brain will be a very valuable and marketable skill to graduate schools and employers. While this is great, he said that the most difficult part of the program so far is the fact that he has to turn down many of the hundreds of students who are interested, simply due to the fact that program is still in its pilot phase. He hopes that in the next few years, the program will expand and be able to accommodate more o people. However, the interest in both Neuroscholars and Nu Rho Psi is evidence that there is an intense excitement  amongst undergraduates about neuroscience, and that is something that inspires both Dr. Gandhi and us members of Nu Rho Psi. It is encouraging to see a professor and neuroscientist with a passion for not only the field but also for helping the next generation get involved as well.

At the end of our journey with our Spotlight Neuroscientist, Dr. Gandhi advised us to “be confident” because we are already “on the right path” by attending an established university and being active members of Nu Rho Psi. Being able to hear about his experiences and what helped him pave the way towards his current successes has deeply impacted many of us, especially those of us unsure about what roads to take in the near future.

Nu Rho Psi at UCI

March 2019 – Dr. Stephen Mahler

Our Spotlight Neuroscientist of the Month of March 2019 was Dr. Mahler, a Neurobiology and Behavior assistant professor in the School of Biological Sciences at UCI. Dr. Mahler’s research focuses on understanding the effects of dopamine on the neurological centers in the human brain that control nicotine and alcohol addiction. His team seeks to explore how these processes relate to motivated behaviors and psychiatric disorders. The main focus of his lab is to use rats as tests subjects in order to dissect the neural circuits involving reward and addiction-related psychological processes. The guiding research questions of the lab are how pathways underlie specific behaviors in relation to addiction, which neurons seem to be involved in these circuits, and how the circuits interact with each other. After we read two of Dr. Mahler’s research journals, we discussed them in depth in order to have intellectual background and questions prepared for his colloquium. We were also given the opportunity to have lunch with him and tour his lab.

To further deepen our understanding about the mesolimbic circuits of reward, especially the roles of addictive drugs such as cocaine in this circuit, we read two of Dr. Mahler’s published articles and discussed the various models involved in this circuit and the function of ventral tegmental area (VTA) on cocaine addiction and relapse. The first paper mainly outlines the models and procedures to simulate cocaine addiction and relapse, analyzes the circuits involved in relapse risk and eventually develops therapeutic strategies to prevent drug addiction and relapse. A few examples of the models are the cocaine self-administration, where rodents are trained to self-administer cocaine by pressing a lever (operant response), and reinstatement, where rodents are primed with a small dose of cocaine or exposed to different cues and stressors that trigger relapse.  The second paper expands on this research, with more statistical analysis of the tests. Dr. Mahler and his colleagues tested rats with different combinations of cocaine injections and levers for self-administration and with various time intervals between respective injections. The researchers analyzed the effects of Chemogenetic Manipulations of the VTA during specific tests of dopamine (DA) reinforcement as well as the effects of cocaine-seeking behavior. Basically, when VTA DA neurons were stimulated, rats wanted less cocaine but worked harder to obtain it. Conversely, during inhibition of DA neurons, rats wanted more cocaine but were less likely to work hard to obtain it. These results indicate that VTA DA neurons are involved in both the subjective reinforcing, and motivational activating effects of cocaine, instead of playing any single role in reward. Ultimately, these experiments led to new potential approaches to treat addiction.

During the colloquium hosted by Dr. Mahler, we were able to listen to him speak about his research and his journey to becoming the neuroscientist he is today. He began his presentation by asking us about our career goals and interests, and then shared his college experience. Dr. Mahler, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, applied to several graduate programs but in a sad turn of events, got denied from all of them. Fortunately, one school transferred his application to a terminal master’s program which then landed him in Chicago. There, he joined the lab of Harriet de Wit, a human psychopharmacologist. Through this lab, he was introduced to what would be the topic of his thesis: discovering the role of dopamine in smoking craving. To this day, he attributes de Wit as a major key component to what led him to his current research. As he continues studying the brain, and the effects of addiction, he touches on relapse and what contributes to it. Stress and priming doses which are the phenomenons of one alcoholic drink at your friend’s wedding, can cause you to relapse, as well as conditioned cues, passing by the bar you once used to drink at. This, Mahler explains, helps us to understand addiction and how to better control it. He hopes that by studying the behavior of rats and the effects of DREADDS, we are able to gain a greater understanding of the brain’s response and relate that to humans. By doing so, we bring science one step closer to decreasing the rates of addiction.

Mitch Farrell, a current graduate student of Dr. Mahler’s lab, generously hosted a tour of the lab. During the walk-around, he introduced us to the different tools that they use in their lab including a mice brain slicer as well as needles used for administering the drugs to the rats. It was a great opportunity to learn about the many facilities that held their instruments which is useful for understanding the differences that occur in mice’s brain due to using drugs. Mitch then walked us over to a high quality microscope which was connected to a computer. He explained that by using this tool, they are able to take microscopic pictures of different areas of mice brain based on their research. Being able to view how mouse brain areas look like in such high quality pictures was a fascinating experience. He proceeded by guiding us into the surgery room, a place in which they put microchips or other important things into the brain of the mouse. It is important to note, that by doing that they are able to monitor and record the brain activity of the mouse anytime based on the research that they are doing on the animal. Later we were able to see the actual activity that each mouse would do using skinner-like boxes and applying the several tasks they had on hand. Being able to view the environment and have Mitch break down the various tools used in the research papers, was a great way to tie in all the knowledge we had acquired from the past events. In addition, it gave us a great opportunity to have an overview of how they actually perform each of the tasks that we read in their paper.   

Aside from discussing his research, Dr. Mahler shared some insightful tips on applying for a research position at UCI during our luncheon. Dr. Mahler first mentioned that students should get in touch with the personal investigator (PI) of the lab by sending an email and/or attending the PI’s office hours, and that they should show interests and passion on the lab’s work and goals. Oftentimes, the PI would offer students a volunteer position first, prior to getting the research position, or require the student to dedicate some number of hours to be accustomed to the lab and learn the techniques. For example, Dr. Mahler requires students to commit ten hours a week on a project in his lab. As we enjoy our pizzas and turkey roll ups, Dr. Mahler also explained one of the perks in academia: travelling. Dr. Mahler has travelled domestically and internationally for conferences, symposiums, etc. throughout his career, most of which he had experienced a great time. Dr. Mahler even reassured us that we can squeeze in some leisure time, even though these trips are meant for business. Furthermore, Dr. Mahler walked us through the different funding/grant opportunities for graduate students and postdocs. Dr. Mahler talked about the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (“career grant”) and the Kangaroo (K99/R00) grant as one of the many grants that graduate students and postdocs could apply for respectively.

Towards the end of our journey with our Spotlight Neuroscientist, Dr. Mahler advised us to “hang in there” whether we are aiming for academia, medical school, and other interests. Although the direction of our paths may change, it is okay to follow that road and embark on that new adventure. We just have to keep in mind that “persistence is mandatory” in reaching our ultimate destinations or goals.

Nu Rho Psi at UCI

February 2019 – Dr. Michael Yassa

Dr. Yassa, a Neurobiology and Behavior professor in the School of Biological Sciences here at UCI, was our first Spotlight Neuroscientist of the Month for February 2019. We started off the month by hosting a Journal Club meeting, which was centered around some of Dr. Yassa’s most foundational work for his research at UCI. We began by discussing pattern separation in the hippocampus. Pattern separation is the process of making similar neural patterns of activity more distinct, which is made possible by the anatomical wiring of the hippocampus and surrounding brain regions. We learned that there is a general consensus that the dentate gyrus responds to relatively small changes in input, which might initiate pattern separation signals in the CA3. The second paper we read gave more detail on how the hippocampus preserves order and the role of prediction and context. By reading and discussing two of Dr. Yassa’s research papers, we were more prepared for the lab tour to come in the following weeks.

Maria Montchal and Steve Granger, two graduate students in Dr. Yassa’s Translational Neurobiology Lab, graciously hosted a tour of Dr. Yassa’s lab. Each of them gave a brief overview of their research in the lab, including projects involving computational analysis of behavioral data and neuroimaging. While some of our members were more familiar with neuroimaging techniques, it was interesting to hear about the computational aspect of the lab. Maria talked to us more in detail about her research, which analyzes how people preserve the order events. She showed examples of structural MRI scans and emphasized the differences between a healthy and clinical/aged brain. Steve’s research involves studying biomarkers for depression through using various imaging techniques, including structural, functional, and diffusion MRI. He also studies the neurobiology of emotional memory systems (emotional pattern separation) and how differences in these processes change with symptom severity in the healthy, clinical, and aged population. Steve demonstrated computational techniques to analyze diffusion MRI scans by calculating the nodes with the greatest connectivity to other brain regions. Both Maria and Steve discussed pattern separation as an element of their research, which we read about during Journal Club. Being able to connect these ideas that we read in the papers to current, ongoing studies gave us further insight into the concepts we read and discussed previously.

After this thorough lab tour, Dr. Yassa sat down with us for a luncheon the following Monday. Having a chance to sit down with him and talk about his path to neuroscience was a unique opportunity–it allowed our members to better understand how faculty members reach their current positions, but from a more personal perspective than what one might have received in a brief introduction at a lecture or an event of a similar variety. As everyone munched on their slice of pizza, Dr. Yassa explained to us how he first became interested in neuroscience. Johns Hopkins, Dr. Yassa’s alma mater university, required all students to enroll in a freshman seminar. To fulfill this requirement, Dr. Yassa enrolled in a brain sciences class and he found the topic particularly interesting. After this class, he became fascinated by the brain and wanted to know more about how it all worked. This inspired him to take several more neuroscience classes, and he eventually realized he had ‘accidentally’ become a neuroscience major. Coincidentally enough, Dr. Yassa helped found Nu Rho Psi at Johns Hopkins, which was the first chapter in Nu Rho Psi history.

When asked what skill would be useful to have when pursuing a career in neuroscience or a related field, Dr. Yassa responded that computational skills are an essential part of education and brain science research. This was news to some of our members. From advanced computational analysis to coding behavioral tasks, programming will be in the future for us. Even if we might not be the ones coding everything, it is still essentially to understand the code our collaborators might write. This was an extremely valuable piece of advice. From Dr. Yassa’s story and words of advice, we were able to gain a new perspective on neuroscience that some of us had never been exposed to before. Dr. Yassa’s path, while somewhat unconventional, definitely sets an example for all neuroscience students.

Last Thursday, we came together for a colloquium where Dr. Yassa presented more generally on his path to neuroscience and then broadened our perspectives with the most current neuroscience projects that are changing society as we speak. One of these projects was the ‘Iron Man’ suit, which Duke neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis created with a team of more than 150 other scientists. This suit was created as a part of the Walk Again Project, which aimed to create a technology that allows paraplegics to walk again through the use of EEG. It was extremely powerful to see how a project in neuroscience had the capacity to make such a huge difference in the lives of others. It was this project and others mentioned by Dr. Yassa that shed a positive light on the future of neuroscience, and inspired us all to continue learning as much as we can about the brain in order to create a better tomorrow for society.

More on the Walk Again Project



Nu Rho Psi at UCI

Spotlight Lab of the Month

Hi everyone!

This is where we will be posting a summary of what we learned throughout the month and our personal experiences with each spotlight PI/lab. This blog will act as a timeline of our immersive experience in neuroscience research at UCI.

Nu Rho Psi at UCI