$1.1 million awarded for brain research

A neuroscientist at the Medical Center has received $1.1 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disease and Stroke to look at how the brain's wiring translates desires and motivations into behavior.

While most people are unaware of the biological hardware that links motivation and behavior, the brain is constantly evaluating information as a person sizes up a situation and decides on the next step. It's much like a computer chip that's constantly processing instructions in the background while someone uses software for word processing or to access the Internet.

"The brain is made up of billions and billions of connections," said Suzanne Haber, professor of neurobiology and anatomy. "These create complex neuronal networks that evaluate and integrate incoming information, leading to specific behavioral outcomes."

Haber's team will focus on the hardware of the brain that underlies just how desires and goals motivate motor output. Whether it's the sight of a piece of chocolate cake that motivates a person to enter the bakery or a bitter whiff from a sewage treatment plant that makes a person roll up the window, diverse regions of the brain are amazingly active. Electrical signals zip along nerve cells from one brain region to another, and neural structures pump out chemical signaling molecules as the brain sorts out stimuli and determines which path to pursue to achieve goals.

While these complex neuronal networks regulate everyday decisions and goals, their disruption underlies problems in several disorders, including drug abuse, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases, schizophrenia, and obsessive/compulsive disorder. Scientists now understand quite a bit about how the brain processes information, thanks to the modern techniques they use to study gene regulation, the brain's dynamic "software." However, Haber said, "It is the chemical circuits and how they interface--the brain's hardware--that underlies the molecular changes in determining behavior. This type of information is critical if we are to take advantage of the new findings coming out of the fast-moving world of molecular biology that ultimately can improve patients' health."

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