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NEWS | April 9, 2013

Tian receives international investigator award for brain function studies


Lin Tian, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine at UC Davis School of Medicine, is one of 28 scientists worldwide awarded a 2013 Young Investigator Grant from the Human Frontier Science Program to better understand the complex mechanisms of living organisms.

Lin Tian Lin Tian

The 2013 competition involved a year-long selection process that began with more than 715 letters of intent and nearly 100 full applications. Tian and her collaborator will receive support of $250,000 per year for the three-year project.

Tian will use optical imaging and behavioral analysis to understand the function of the outermost neocortical layer of the brain, known as Layer 1, which is involved in higher brain function and a wide range of daily activities. She will conduct her studies in mice.

“Whether you are trying to tie your shoe laces, texting a message, learning to use an iPad, running, drinking or talking, you are using the neocortex,” Tian said. “This region allows us to perceive sensations, generate voluntary motor control, mentally visualize and manipulate two- and three-dimensional objects in time and space and use language.

"It works like a hub to integrate distant and local activity to orchestrate a brain function, but we do not yet understand how integration between the distant brain and local cortical computation occurs and don’t have a way to measure activity at individual synapses."

Tian's research will focus on creating novel and specialized optical sensors to track communication that occurs at Layer 1 when mice are performing tasks. She is working in collaboration with Leopoldo Petreanu at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme in Portugal. These new tools will potentially allow neuroscientists to use synaptic resolution to establish the relationship between connectivity and function in circuits of any length across the nervous system. These developments are critical to understanding brain function, Tian said.

neuron diagram
At the anatomical level, Layer 1 is composed almost exclusively of synapses, structures at the end of nerve cells that enable an electrical or chemical signal to pass to another nerve or other cell. In this region, axons project from distant brain regions to meet with dendrites of postsynaptic target neurons leading to deep layers of the neocortex. This way, neurons in the other layers of the neocortex can communicate with those located in distant brain regions.

The Human Frontier Science Program is an international program of research support that funds leading-edge research at all levels of biological complexity, from biomolecules to the interactions between organisms.

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