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Gatsby grant aiding research team

By Arthur Lightbourn

Contributor

It’s perhaps not surprising that Anirvan Ghosh, always fascinated by how things work and inspired by some of the great scientists of the past century, found his calling in the exploration of that most unique, complex and still relatively unexplored of human organs — the brain.

Ghosh, 46, is a research neuroscientist and professor of neurobiology at UCSD. He is also a key player in a new consortium of four research teams from UCSD and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies selected to receive a $4 million grant over five years to expand our understanding of the brain’s complex circuitry.

Other leaders of the collaborative teams are: UCSD neurobiology professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Massimo Scanziani, Ph.D.; and, from the Salk Institute’s neurobiology labs, professor Edward Callaway, Ph.D., and associate professor John Reynolds, Ph.D.

The grant comes from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation based in the United Kingdom and founded 40 years ago by a former member of the House of Lords, David Sainsbury, whose ambition is to give away at least 1 billion (English) pounds in his lifetime to advance science, improve mental health, encourage the arts, stimulate economic development and income generation in Africa, and fund an institute to make governments more effective.

“The grant,” Ghosh said, “has been hugely energizing for us.”

It has offered the four-team leaders an opportunity to formalize a long-standing relationship developed through their overlapping research interests and their close proximity in San Diego.

The grant came as a result of a chance meeting that Ghosh had with an adviser to the Gatsby Foundation last summer at a conference in Italy.

“I told her a little bit about what we are doing ... and shortly after that, she came here, visited us, talked to us about the kind of work we are doing, went back and, in short order, asked us for a proposal.”

The foundation does not accept unsolicited applications.

“We put something together over winter break,” Ghosh said, “and, within a month, they decided they would fund us.”

The consortium proposed a new strategy to analyze how the brain processes information by activating or deactivating groups of cells within one part of the brain (in mice, rats and ultimately primates) to discover what these cells contribute to the overall perceptions of the brain.

Initially, researchers will breed mice born with a “silencer” in selected cells that can be activated with drugs at any given time and analyzed, Ghosh explained.

In a second class of experiments, the researchers will be injecting certain modified viruses into rodents’ brains that can be used to turn cells on and off.

“It will provide us with a better understanding of how sensory information is processed and might help us understand and maybe even, at some point, address those disorders in which there are alterations in sensory perception ... such as schizophrenia.

“There’s a lot of evidence that suggests that these kind of disorders come about because of alterations in the functioning of neural circuits,” he said.

The research may also cast new light on movement disorders, Ghosh said, such as Parkinson’s disease.

As for the future of neuroscience, Ghosh predicted: “In our field, in the next 10 to 15 years, we will be able to bridge the gap between the brain and behavior.

“Behavior has been in the realm of psychology for decades, maybe over a century. Many biologists frankly shy away from something like behavior. They say, behavior, that’s what psychologists do, it’s too complex for us to try to understand. But I really feel in the last 10 years there has been a qualitative shift in the way we can study the brain that has made it possible to begin to ask questions about the relationship between brain and behavior, including perception, motor behavior, more complex behavior like addictions, sexual behavior and feeding behavior.