Neuroscience Researcher Receives $1 Million To Study Neuroplasticity And Visual Pathways Across Species
ATLANTA—Dr. Sarah Pallas, a professor in the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University, has received a four-year, $1 million federal grant to study how visual brain pathways develop in different species.
Plasticity, or the brain’s ability to alter itself in response to experience and environment, is observed in many animal species. Human brains are particularly malleable during infancy and childhood, but are more stable during adulthood. Research from the Pallas lab suggests the influence of experience and environment on the brain may differ across species, however.
For the development of visual pathways in particular, data from cats and non-human primates showed that early sensory experience is crucial.
“If a young animal was kept in the dark, we thought the neural pathways that enable vision would not develop normally,” said Pallas. “But we realized that in some animals—such as mice, which are nocturnal and may spend much of their lives in darkness—visual experience may not be necessary to generate those pathways.”
The Pallas Lab will compare several rodent species—including the diurnal Chilean degu, which relies more on visual perception—to determine whether the animals’ evolutionary history and environment predicts to what extent vision itself is required for the creation of these pathways in the brain.
“As mice become the preferred animal model for studies in the areas of plasticity and visual pathways, we need a better understanding of how neural development in this species mirrors the process in humans—and how it diverges from it,” said Pallas. “This project will help answer the question: are we expanding our existing knowledge when we study mice, or is there a better animal model for this research?”
Pallas’s project will also build scientific knowledge about how and why the brain exhibits plasticity, and whether the highly plastic state of our brains during childhood could be reactivated during adulthood. The study results may contribute to the development of novel drug and rehabilitative therapies for diseases or injuries of visual pathways and brain pathways in general.
An abstract of the award, 1656838, is available at the National Science Foundation’s website.
For more information about the Neuroscience Institute, visit http://neuroscience.gsu.edu.
Dr. Sarah Pallas
Sarah Pallas received her B.S. degree in Biology, summa cum laude, from the University of Minnesota. After a year of post-baccalaureate research training, she obtained a M.S. degree in Zoology from Iowa State University, where she conducted neurophysiological research on earthworm escape behavior circuitry. For her Ph.D. she first studied developmental plasticity of the cricket auditory pathway under Ronald R. Hoy and then developmental plasticity of the mammalian visual pathway under Barbara L. Finlay, using neurophysiological and neuroanatomical approaches. Her postdoc was done at M.I.T. under Mriganka Sur in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department. There she studied cross-modal plasticity in the ferret sensory cortex, under an NRSA fellowship from NIH/NEI.