Current Events: Genes and Behavior Symposium

By Dr. Kerry Ressler, Field Reporter

Originally December 2007.

The Center for Behavioral Neuroscience’s 2007 Fall Symposium was a tremendous success this year. The Symposium, entitled, “Genes and Behavior” was held on Saturday, November 17 in White Hall. It was organized principally by Emory’s Kim Maguschak, Tig Rainnie, PhD and our Director of Graduate Studies, Larry Young, PhD. Other organizers from Emory included Shala Blue, Ebony Glover, Cary Leung, and Marina Wheeler. The all-day symposium featured five world-class speakers interspersed with student presentations, a poster session, coffee breaks, and discussions over lunch. As aptly titled, the focus of the symposium was on leading edge thinkers from around the country examining how genes organize behavior.

The first speaker, Ralph Greenspan, PhD, discussed, “Flexible Gene Networks Affecting Behavior in Drosophila.” Dr. Greenspan has worked on the genetic and neurobiological basis of behavior in fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) almost since the inception of the field, studying with one of its founders,  Jeffery Hall, at Brandeis University in the 1970’s. In 1997, Greenspan relocated to San  Diego to become a Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute. In 2002, he was named the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Senior Fellow in Experimental Neurobiology at the Institute. Greenspan’s work has ranged from nervous  system development in the fruit fly and mouse, to genetic, molecular, and neurobiological studies of innate and learned behaviors in the fruit fly. He and his associates have initiated studies of mutations affecting the brain’s chemical signals; in making highly localized genetic alterations in the nervous system to alter behavior; in the identification of genes causing naturally occurring variations in behavior; in the demonstration that the fruit fly has a sleep-like behavior similar to that of humans; and in studies of the physiology and circuitry underlying salience and arousal in the fruit fly.

Dr. Hans Hofman, from UT, Austin, then entertained the crowd with a discussion of networks mediating aggression in Ciclid fish, entitled, “Wimps and Machos: A Molecular Systems Analysis of Social Behavior in a Neuroendocrine Integration Center”. In 2000, Dr. Hofman was awarded a prestigious Grass Foundation Fellowship in Neuroscience, which allowed him to pursue his research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. From 2001 to 2006, Hofmann was a Bauer Genome Fellow at Harvard University. During his time there he created a multitude of genomic resources for cichlid fishes and spearheaded the genomic and systems biological analysis of socially regulated behavior within an organismic framework. Dr. Hofmann is now an Assistant Professor in Integrative Biology and a Fellow of the Institute of Cellular & Molecular Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Hofmann’s  research aims at understanding the molecular and neural basis of social behavior and its revolution. He was among the first to use genomic approaches to systematically explain animal behavior in molecular terms. He does this work in a very powerful model system, the African cichlid fishes, which are characterized by rapid evolutionary change, astonishing phenotypic diversity and complex social behavior.

“Investigating the Role of Chromatin Remodeling in Memory Processes” was the title of Dr. Marcelo Wood’s discussion of the molecular mechanisms of epigenetic regulation of learning and memory in mice. Dr. Wood received his Ph.D. from the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University where his research focused on molecular mechanisms of cancer biology. Dr. Wood is now an assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior and a fellow of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory at the University of California, Irvine. The overall research goal of his laboratory is to understand the molecular mechanisms underlying long-term memory storage. Transcriptional activation is thought to be a key process in long-lasting forms of memory and synaptic plasticity, and regulation of histone acetylation appears to be a critical mechanism of  ong-term transcriptional regulation.

dec72007Olivier Berton, PhD, has just completed a postdoc  with Dr. Eric Nestler at UT, Southwestern, and is starting his new lab at U. Penn University of Medicine. His talk was entitled, “Neuroplasticity of Brain Monoaminergic Pathways in a Mouse Model of Affective Disorder.” Dr. Berton has spent some time researching the role of transcription and growth factors in neurobehavioral adaptations to chronic stress and models of depression in transgenic mouse models. In addition, he has also investigated neurochemical adaptations of serotonergic systems induced by stress and antidepressants. He currently studies the mechanisms of neurobehavioral adaptations to stress with an emphasis on transcriptional and neurotrophic mechanisms. His particular aim is to study physiological mechanisms underlying normal and pathological emotional adaptations by integrating molecular, neuroanatomical, and behavioral levels of analysis.

The exploration of genes and behavior ended at the top (?) of the evolutionary ladder with Dr. Joe Callicott, MD, from the National Institutes of Mental Health, with a discussion of
“Exploring the Genetic Underpinnings of Prefrontal Cortical Function” in humans. Dr. Callicott is Chief of the Unit on Dynamic Imaging Genetics (UDIG) as part of the Genes,
Cognition and Psychosis Program of the NIMH under Dr. Daniel Weinberger. Dr. Callicott
is interested in prefrontal cortical neuronal inefficiency as a primary deficit in schizophrenia. He is also interested in searching for the physiological manifestations of genetic variation in the structure and function of brain regions like the prefrontal cortex in healthy individuals, schizophrenic patients, and their unaffected siblings. He has been fortunate to participate in collaborations characterizing genes including COMT, GRM3, RGS4, and DISC1. Future directions include expanding the characterization of prefrontal function with novel cognitive challenges. In addition, Dr. Callicott hopes to identify novel therapeutic strategies based upon genetic findings, particularly those compounds initially developed for other disease models that may also have efficacy in the treatment of schizophrenia.

This day of exhilarating neuroscience finally ended with a panel discussion examining the range of approaches, questions, and future directions of how to best continue the complex and fascinating exploration of genes and behavior.

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