University of Rochester

Neuroscientist Wins Society for Neuroscience's Career Development Award

October 7, 2009

The Society for Neuroscience has given Raphael Pinaud, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences, a 2009 Career Development Award in recognition of his contributions in neuroscience. The award recognizes "scientists that have published substantial contributions to science and have shown indications of leadership in ideas for colleagues within the scientific community."

Pinaud will receive the award along with $2,000 at a ceremony at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago, Oct. 20. The Society for Neuroscience presents the award to only two recipients each year.

"We are delighted that Raphael has received this well deserved honor," says Elissa Newport, chair of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and George Eastman Professor. "While he is quite early in his career, he is already making important advances in our understanding of how precisely the brain adapts to sensory experience."

In his early scientific career, Pinaud explored how sensory experience modifies the structure and function of the brain circuits that process visual, auditory and tactile information. He also demonstrated how experience-mediated changes in specific biochemical signaling pathways and the activation of specific genes impact the long-term functionality of auditory neurons. Pinaud says these changes might enable the adult brain to learn complex acoustic cues, such as those required for human speech acquisition.

More recently, Pinaud and his team at the University of Rochester discovered that the hormone estrogen plays a pivotal role in how the brain processes sounds. His research shows for the first time that a sex hormone can directly affect auditory function in the brain, and points toward the possibility that estrogen controls other types of sensory processing as well. Understanding how estrogen changes the brain's response to sound, he says, might open the door to new ways of treating hearing deficiencies.

Pinaud has demonstrated that increasing estrogen levels in brain regions that process auditory information caused heightened sensitivity of sound-processing neurons. While this was an unexpected finding, Pinaud says he discovered something more surprising yet—that blocking the actions of estrogen directly, or preventing brain cells from producing estrogen within auditory centers essentially shuts down the signaling that is necessary for the brain to process sound.

Pinaud is conducting experiments to extend his findings and to uncover evidence that the same phenomenon underlies the processing of other sensory systems in vertebrate species. "If this is the case, we are on the way to showing that estrogen is a key molecule for processing information from all the senses," he says.

The Career Development Award is funded by Merck & Co. Inc., the Society for Neuroscience, and the National Institutes of Health.