A neuroscientist at the University of Rochester 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 our desires and motivations into behavior.
While most of us are unaware of the biological hardware that links motivation and behavior, our brain is constantly evaluating information as we size up a situation and decide on our next step. It's much like a computer chip that is constantly processing instructions in the background while we use software for word processing or to access the Internet. "The brain is made up of billions and billions of connections," says 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 our desires and goals motivate motor output. Whether it's the sight of a piece of chocolate cake that motivates us to enter the bakery, a bitter whiff from a sewage treatment plant that makes us roll up the window, or the promise of an evening spent with good friends that provokes a cooking frenzy, diverse regions of the brains 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 our goals.
While these complex neuronal networks regulate our 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 says, "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."