Unravelling Neural Codes of Behavior

Prof. Zornik wins $670K NSF grant to investigate how neural circuits govern behavior patterns.

By Ian Buckman ’18 | September 24, 2018

Prof. Erik Zornik [biology 2012–] has won a $670,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the ways in which patterns of behavior—phenomena such as breathing, walking, and vocalizing—are written into the neural circuits of the brain.

To analyze the roots of these patterns, the project zooms in on three species of African clawed frogs, or Xenopus. Although closely related, the frogs have nonetheless developed their own distinct male mating call, a perfect behavioral pattern for Prof. Zornik and his students to analyze. Another advantage of studying frogs is that researchers can easily record the output of the Xenopus brain through a cutting-edge method which Zornik calls the “brain-in-a-dish” preparation. Whereas humans use dozens of muscles to produce speech, Xenopus only use one muscle. This makes life easier for researchers, who are able manipulate the specific brain circuit that controls this muscle in a lab. It may seem like science fiction, but the brain-in-a-dish method has already led to the discovery of neurons in the brain that may help unravel how key neural circuits evolve over time.

Zornik says his research aims to get at “fundamental questions of neurobiology and behavior that we have virtually no answers for at this point.” Questions like: “What changes must occur in a neural circuit for one species to evolve a distinct but related behavior?” and “what genes are involved in establishing those changes?”

In addition to the potential scientific discoveries, he is also excited that the project will rely on Reed students. “Undergraduates in general, and Reed students in particular, are genuinely excited by discovery,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to hear cheering in the lab when someone gets a new piece of data. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and invaluable to our progress.”

Zornik also won a $444K grant from the NIH in 2015 to investigate the neural basis for behavior in Xenopus.

Tags: Research, Professors, Awards & Achievements, Institutional