NTP faculty Richard Davidson talking with Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. Davidson's research focuses on cortical and subcortical substrates of emotion and affective disorders.

Jeff Miller, University Communications 

Research Strengths

One of the most distinguishing features of neuroscience as a field of inquiry is its inherent interdisciplinary nature. Scientific research on the structure and function of the nervous system is conducted at multiple levels of investigation and employs many different approaches and methodologies. The questions posed in modern neuroscience often cut across traditional departmental boundaries. A distinct advantage of a strong research institution such as UW-Madison is the existence of a critical mass of faculty researchers who collaborate and share common approaches or research questions. Listed below are seven broad research areas that are particularly strong in the Neuroscience Training Program at UW-Madison. The research areas listed are not inclusive of all research projects in the Program, but are meant to serve as a guide for prospective students as they begin to consider their graduate school career. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of neuroscience, a number of faculty are listed under multiple areas.

Please click on the drop-down panels below to see a brief description of the area of research and a list of NTP Faculty who are involved in that research area.

Behavior, Cognition and Emotion

Understanding how neural processes are translated into complex behaviors and mental states is one of the most challenging frontiers of neuroscience. Neuroscientists intrigued by this question study problems such as learning and memory, emotion and motivation, behavioral state regulation, complex information processing and cognition. Many of these investigators utilize tools and approaches that are multidisciplinary, incorporating methodologies and theoretical frameworks from physiology, psychology, molecular biology, and computational neuroscience. There are a number of strong and active research groups at the University of Wisconsin-Madison addressing these questions. One group uses state-of-the-art neuroimaging tools (functional MRI and PET) to examine the human brain during cognitive tasks or emotional states. Other faculty employ animal models to investigate brain substrates of motivated behavior, such as feeding, sexual behavior, aggression, stress responses, and drug-seeking behavior. There are a number of researchers focusing on organization of brain systems that control behavioral states, such as sleep and wakefulness. Other significant research areas include the study of neural pathways involved in language and sensory processing. Levels of investigation are often multifaceted; for example, researchers may be interested in correlating neurochemical, neurophysiological, endocrine, or molecular and genetic processes with behavioral states.

 

 

Development, Plasticity and Repair

The faculty in this area focus on understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that pattern the nervous system during development. Many complex processes are involved in the differentiation of specific neuronal and glial cell types and the formation of axon pathways and neural connections. In Neuroscience Training Program, students use cutting edge genetic techniques in model systems such as Drosophila, zebrafish, and mice to understand how individual molecules function in a variety of processes important for neural development. One main focus of investigation is understanding the mechanisms of neuronal and glial differentiation. Faculty are exploring questions such as how cell lineage is determined, how cells choose neuronal or glial fates, and what determines the type of neurotransmitter synthesized. Another strong concentration is the analysis of axon pathfinding mechanisms with live imaging of growing axons either in vivo or in cell cultures. Other faculty are investigating mechanisms of synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus and in the neural control of respiration. The Program also has a major strength in high-profile stem cell research. These investigators are pioneering methods of growing and controlling the differentiation of embryonic and neural stem cells; work that is crucial both for understanding normal neuronal differentiation mechanisms, and to replace neurons and restore circuits after brain injury or disease.

 

 

 

 

Membrane Excitability and Synaptic Transmission

The nervous system uses electrical signals to encode and process information. These signals take the form of action potentials within neurons and synaptic potentials between neurons. The molecules responsible for these signals include voltage-gated channels, which generate and shape action potentials; neurotransmitter receptors, which generate and shape synaptic potentials; and membrane trafficking proteins, which catalyze the fusion of neurotransmitter-containing vesicles with the plasma membrane. Research into membrane excitability and synaptic transmission provides insight into the cellular and molecular basis for learning and memory, and illuminates the molecular mechanisms of neurological disease and drug action. Faculty in the Neuroscience Training Program investigate these questions in a wide variety of models from yeast and Drosophila to humans, using a broad range of techniques including patch clamping, electrophysiology, and cellular imaging.

 

  • Donata Oertel, The ROle of the Mammalian Cochlear Nuclei in Hearing
  • Robert A. Pearce, Inhibitory Synaptic Transmission, Hippocampal Function, and Mechanisms of Anesthetic Action
  • Gail A. Robertson, Molecular Mechanisms of Ion Channel Function and Disease
  • Arnold E. Ruoho, G-Protein REceptors, G-Proteins, Neurotransmitter Transporters and Sigma Receptors
  • Paul A. Rutecki, Synaptic Physiology of Epileptiform Activity
  • Antony O.W. Stretton, Structure and Function of Neuropeptides in Nematodes
  • Lea Ziskind-Conhaim, Mechanisms Underlying Rhythmic Generation in Identified Interneurons in the Mammalian Spinal Cord

 

Molecular Neuroscience

Molecular neuroscientists seek to understand the development and function of the nervous system at the level of individual molecules and macromolecular complexes. This broad field encompasses researchers utilizing a variety of approaches to explore issues ranging from the structure and function of individual molecules such as ion channels to the molecular basis of behavior. For example, faculty in molecular neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison study the molecular basis of neuronal differentiation, axon guidance, synaptic transmitter release, ion channel gating, receptor-ligand interactions, cell signaling and cell death, to name a few areas. To perform these studies many researchers are taking a multidisciplinary approach applying protein biochemistry, molecular cloning, site directed mutagenesis, transgenesis, patch clamping, single and multiphoton microscopy, as well as other biophotonic based methods. In keeping with the interdisciplinary nature of the Neuroscience Training Program and the breadth of expertise of its faculty, many opportunities exist for cross-disciplinary collaborations with molecular neuroscientists.

 

  • Anthony P. Auger, Neuroendocinology of Sex Differences in Brain Behavior
  • Tracy L. Baker, Mechanisms of Spinal Homeostatic Plasticity  
  • Mark S. Brownfield, Role of Brain Serotonin Neurons on Neuroendocine and Autonomic Systems
  • Corinna Burger, Molecular Biology of Living and Memory Formation and Neurodegenerative Disorders
  • Baron Chanda, Structural Mechanisms Underlying Voltage-dependent Gating of Ion Channels
  • Qiang Chang, Epigenetic Regulation of Brain Functions
  • Edwin R. Chapman, Molecular Mechanisms of Ca2+-triggered Exocytosis
  • Shing-Yan Chiu, Voltage- and Ligand-Gated Channels in Neural-Gila Interactions
  • Chiara Cirelli, Function of Sleeping Using Molecular and Genetic Approaches
  • Nansi J. Colley, Molecular Genetics of Protein Trafficking in Drosophilia Visual System and Mechanisms of Neurodegeneration
  • Cynthia Czajkowski, The Structure and Function of GABAA Receptors
  • Erik W. Dent, Cytoskeletal Dynamics in Neuronal Morphogenesis
  • Robert Fettiplace, Transduction and Turning in Hair Cells of the Inner Ear
  • Timothy M. Gomez, Molecular Mechanisms that Regulate Growth Cone Motility and Guidance
  • Zhen Huang, Neural and Vascular Development and Disease of the Cerebral Cortex
  • Bermans J. Iskandar
  • Meyer B. Jackson, Excitability, Synapses, and Circuits in the Nervous System
  • Jeffery A. Johnson, Signal Transduction, Neurotoxicity, and Transcriptional Control of Neuroprotective Genes

 

Neuronal Circuits

This research area is concerned with how cells behave when connected together to form neural networks, and thus forms the link between molecular and systems neuroscience. We are now poised to explain how the activity of groups of cells in the brain contributes to specific behaviors, and how patterns of activity in groups of cells arise based on the properties of individual cells in the network. Nonlinear interactions between voltage and ligand-gated channels, second messenger systems, exocytosis, and other processes dictates that these networks will not just be the sums of their parts, but will produce unexpected and complex patterns of activity. Faculty address these questions in a diverse array of systems. For example, researchers investigate how sensory stimuli are extracted in the periphery, processed in parallel, and reunited centrally to form cohesive percepts, and how this information is used to plan and execute motor output. Faculty are also investigating how cortical circuits are reorganized during learning, how memories are stored and retrieved, and what goes wrong with these processes in pathologies such as epilepsy and Parkinson's diseases. Others study the pattern generating circuitry controlling locomotion and breathing. The circuit-based mechanisms underlying stress responses, waking and arousal, and neuroendocrine regulation of the cardiovascular system are also being addressed. Students have the opportunity to learn state-of-the art techniques for monitoring activity and assaying connectivity within neural networks, including simultaneous patch clamp recordings from visually identified cell pairs and triplets, single and multiple cell staining, imaging with voltage and calcium-sensitive fluorescent dyes, electrophysiological recordings, in vivo, and neural network modeling.

 

 

Neurobiology of Disease

A large part of neuroscience research is based on the premise that scientists may unravel clues to understanding diseases of the nervous system, with hopes that such endeavors may one day lead to treatment and cures. Application of sophisticated techniques from molecular biology and genetics is enabling exciting advances along these paths. Faculty are focusing in a number of strong research areas. Work by several faculty is aimed at understanding the cellular and genomic processes associated with cell death and neuroprotection in conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, eye disease, ischemia, and also in the normal aging process. Another active group is involved in the promising area of cell and gene therapy, including embryonic stem cell research, which was pioneered here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Other important represented areas include epilepsy and disorders of myelination, such as multiple sclerosis, as well as research on pain mechanisms and cardiac arrhythmia. Research on disorders of emotional and mental health are also well represented on campus, with scientists examining the neural basis of depression, anxiety and sleep disorders, schizophrenia, and addictions. Problems are investigated with a wide range of approaches, ranging from cellular and molecular methodologies to whole brain neuroimaging applications such as functional MRI.

 

 

Perception and Movement

How would you describe the color of the sky to a blind person? How would you describe the sound of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite to a deaf person? Human experience arises through our senses and based on this experience, our actions allow us to interact with our world.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a long history of prominence in studies of sensory and motor cortices from the work of Clinton Woolsey and Jerry Rose who established a world class auditory physiology group. This group now encompasses a broad range of experimentation from biophysics of signal transduction to electrophysiological correlates of sound localization as well as imaging and psychophysical and computational studies of complex sound processing such as speech. Still other faculty study visual motion processing as well as how visual perceptual mechanisms contribute to the control of voluntary movements of the eye and limbs. Since many neurological diseases are expressed as disorders of perception and movement, gaining knowledge about neuronal mechanisms in the healthy brain is a first step in understanding, treating and preventing disease.