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News at VVRC
New faculty: Anita Disney explores role of neurotransmitters in attention
When Anita Disney was growing up in Adelaide, Australia, friends and family assumed she would become a scientist. After all, her father was a biologist and one of the founding faculty members of Flinders University.
But in what she admits may have been a bit of youthful rebellion, Disney gained admission to a performing arts magnet high school and threw herself into music, Shakespearean drama and dance classes. In college she pursued a bachelor of arts, majoring in drama. Then she encountered psychology.
“I got really stuck on this biological psychology course I took,” Disney said. She soon transferred to Australian National University, where she studied under the noted neuroscientist Michael B. Calford. He introduced her to neurosteroids, a special class of steroids made in the brain that modulate the activity of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that carry information throughout the brain.
During graduate studies at New York University, Disney worked with researchers studying the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. She came across what she thought was an extraordinary claim made by a British neuroscientist: Acetylcholine can sharpen cats’ vision. “I woke up one morning with the realization that I wanted to understand the role of acetylcholine in vision,” Disney said.
For her doctoral thesis, she studied the anatomy of the cholinergic system in the primary cortical vision region of macaques. During her postdoctoral training at The Salk Institute in San Diego, she invented a nanoprobe that can simultaneously monitor acetylcholine levels and electrical activity in the brain.
The probe allows Disney to explore the role that acetylcholine plays in attention and arousal. Rodent studies have shown that acetylcholine release into the cortex promotes attentive states, but the situation appears to be more complex in primates.
When human or nonhuman primates pay close attention to something, they generally concentrate on details in a relatively small area, causing elevated activity in the corresponding region of the visual cortex. “Critics object that the anatomy of release for acetylcholine is too widely spread in the cortex to produce such a focused effect,” Disney said. “Actually, we still know very little about the anatomy of this system, especially in primates.”
Disney theorizes that acetylcholine plays a general role in triggering attention, and another mechanism acts at a smaller scale to cause the local increase in sensitivity to a particular visual stimulus. “Think of the spectrum of capacities from ‘awake but not alert’ to ‘alert and highly attentive.’ I am certain that acetylcholine plays a role some place along this spectrum,” she said. “The question is, where?”
Using her nanoprobe, which Disney will be fabricating in the Vanderbilt Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering (VINSE) cleanroom, she plans to explore the cholinergic system in nonhuman primates. And using the functional MRI machines at Vanderbilt’s Institute of Imaging Science, she hopes to do similar studies in humans.
Congratulations to Alex Maier!
Assistant Professor of Psychology Alexander Maier has been selected to receive the Society for Neuroscience’s Janett Rosenberg Trubatch Career Development Award for 2014.
The purpose of the award, which is given to only two individuals each year, is “to recognize individuals who have demonstrated originality and creativity in research and to promote success during academic transitions prior to tenure.”
Maier was recognized for his efforts to understand the basic mystery of how perception arises from neural activities. A prime focus of his research program is to differentiate between the neural circuitry that is involved in visual perception and sensory activity that does not attain the level of conscious awareness. His work has important implications for treating patients with visual disorders characterized by an inability to perceive or recognize certain types of visual images. He is also one of a handful of scientists studying the relationship between the electrical activity in the brain and the variations in blood flow that are measured by the brain mapping technique fMRI, the most commonly used and most reliable method for measuring neural responses in the human brain.
by David Salisbury | Posted on Friday, Aug. 29, 2014
Congratulations to Isabel Gauthier!
Isabel Gauthier was a recipient of the 2014 Chancellor’s Research Award in recognition of her excellence in research as exemplified by her recent PNAS paper on expertise and object selectivity in the fusiform face area.
Congratulations to Kevin L. Schey!
Kevin Schey received the 2014 Cataract Research Award from the National Foundation for Eye Research. This international award recognizes promising lens researchers who have conducted significant scientific work. This award is presented annually at the Lens Business Meeting at ARVO.
Eyes that see in the dark: Randolph Blake’s blindfold test
Congratulations to Jon Kaas!
Jon Kaas is the winner of the 2014 George A. Miller Prize in Cognitive Neuroscience awarded by the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. The prize is awarded annually to a neuroscientist who has conducted cutting-edge research that has revolutionized the field.
2013 Fine Science Tool Travel Award
Congratulations to Brandon Moore, Keji Li, and Pooja Balaram for being selected to receive the 2013 Fine Science Tool Travel Award. This award provides funds towards the cost of attending the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, CA.
Team tracking new options to treat glaucoma
‘Bionic eye’ new option for retinitis pigmentosa patients
Congratulations to John Penn!
John S. Penn, PhD, FARVO (Vanderbilt University School of Medicine) and David R. Williams, PhD, FARVO (University of Rochester School of Medicine) are the new ARVO vice presidents.
ARVO is the largest and most respected eye and vision research organization in the world.
Full Story: http://www.arvo.org/About_ARVO/Press_Room/Smith_begins_term_as_ARVO_president/
May 20, 2013
Congratulations to Alexander Maier!
Alexander Maier, an assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, has won a two-year, $50,000 research fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation aimed at encouraging promising young scholars.
February 14, 2013
Congratulations to Tonia Rex!
Tonia Rex, Ph.D., assistant professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the Vanderbilt Eye Institute, was recently named one of 10 winners of the National Institutes of Health competition for ideas on the future of vision research. Congratulations Tonia!!
February 14, 2013
Congratulations to David Calkins!
December 20, 2012
Congratulations to Isabel Gauthier!
Isabel Gauthier has been elected as a Fellow of the Society for Experimental Psychologists. This is the oldest and most prestigious honorary society in Psychology, with only a handful of Fellows elected every year. This is a richly deserved honor for Isabel. Along with Randolph Blake, Jon Kaas, and Gordon Logan, our department now has 4 members in this Society.
Congrats to Isabel!
December 10, 2012
Congratulations to Daryl Fougnie and René Marois!
Division 3 of APA recently announced young investigator awards given for outstanding articles by young investigators in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (JEP) journals. Daryl Fougnie, former graduate student in René Marois’s lab, was one of the two winners of the award for JEP: Learning, Memory, and Cognition for an article he published with Rene.
Fougnie, D., & Marois, R. (2011). What limits working memory capacity? Evidence for modality-specific sources to the simultaneous storage of visual and auditory arrays. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37, 1329-1341.
Congratulations to both Daryl and Rene!
December 6, 2012
Congratulations to Isabel Gauthier and Steven Hollon!
They won significant awards at the December College Faculty Meeting on December 4, 2012. Isabel Gauthier won the Graduate Mentoring Award and Steve Hollon won the Graduate Teaching Award. Congratulations to Isabel and Steve on these well deserved honors!
December 5, 2012
Brain study provides new insight into why haste makes waste
A new study demonstrates how the brain follows Ben Franklin’s famous dictum, “Take time for all things: great haste makes great waste.”
The research – conducted by Research Assistant Professor Richard Heitz and Jeffrey Schall, Ingram Professor of Neuroscience, at Vanderbilt University – has found that the brain actually switches into a special mode when pushed to make rapid decisions.
The study was published Nov. 7 in the journal Neuron.
“This is a question that is very basic to our experience as human beings, and something that we encounter on a daily basis,” Heitz, who designed and carried out the study, said. “If we can understand how our brain changes when we are pushed to respond faster, we have gone a long way toward understanding the decision-making process in general.”
November 12, 2012