The research programs and interests of our neurobiology section faculty are diverse. They range from biophysics to behavior, and encompass several areas, including: the function and localization of ion channels; mechanisms of synaptic plasticity; the structural and functional underpinning of neural circuits necessary for sensory processing, sensory-motor integration, and the control of motivated behaviors; and mechanisms of learning and memory.
1. Behavior and Learning & Memory. How do neural circuits encode and retrieve information? Neurobiology researchers at USC are actively engaged in studies of the functional circuits that program performance of learning and behavior. Mechanistic dissection of the neural pathways underlying learning and behavior is carried out using an array of different approaches, including cutting-edge techniques to define the structure and morphology of neural tracts and single neurons, to measure the activity of single neurons in awake behaving animals, to assess synaptic plasticity and gene expression, and to activate/inactivate specific neural circuits to manipulate and assess their function. We are studying how the brain pays attention to salient stimuli, learns from experience, and generates appropriate actions.
The research laboratories of Bottjer, Dickman and Herring are central to this area, although almost all our faculty are pursuing research relevant to this subject. The neural basis of emotion and motivation is represented in the research and laboratories of Swanson, Watts, and Hahn.
2. Cell Biology and Physiology of Neuronal Signaling. The Neurobiology PhD Program includes neural cell biologists using molecular, genetic, biochemical, and electrophysiological approaches to focus on protein trafficking, intracellular signaling cascades, transmitter release, synapse-glia interactions, sensory signaling, regulation of receptor function, and ion channels.
3. Sensory Processing and Sensory-Motor Integration. Neurobiology labs at USC have significant strengths in Sensory Biology and Sensory-Motor Integration. On-going research is focused on understanding the elementary processes underlying audition, chemosensation, touch, pain, and vision, as well as how motor systems interpret this information. Neurobiology faculty are investigating questions at molecular, cellular, and systems levels relating to function of these sensory systems, which are essential for our ability to interact and respond to an ever-changing environment. Collective expertise in genetics, neurophysiology, cell biology, neuroanatomy, behavior, and biochemistry are integrated in inter-disciplinary endeavors aimed at understanding fundamental problems in sensory function and dysfunction.
4. Systems Neuroscience. In the area of Systems Neuroscience, Neurobiology labs at USC are defining the structure and organization of neural circuits that underlie diverse functions and behavior. Faculty employ a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding how the brain works, combining neuroanatomical, electrophysiological, molecular biological, computational, imaging, and behavioral robotic approaches. Several labs focus on how the intrinsic and synaptic properties of individual neurons combine into functional circuits in order to give rise to perception, learning, motivation, and the production of specific behaviors.
5. Development, Disease and Repair. Studies of basic processes of neural development are an important aspect of research in the labs of Neurobiology faculty. What are the molecular cues that guide axons towards their synaptic targets? How do synapse formation, maintenance and repair play a role in disease? How does experience guide the refinement of neural circuits to achieve the exquisite specificity of neural connections that subserve normal function? All Neurobiology labs at USC pursue applications of basic-science research to applied questions of neural disease and injury, including neurodegeneration, communication disorders, and diseases of mental retardation. A mechanistic understanding of normal neuronal function is an essential pre-requisite for understanding diverse neural diseases as well as the design of therapeutic treatments endeavoring to reverse abnormal conditions in the nervous system.
From systems as simple as the neuromuscular junction (a primary focus of Ko, emeritus Faculty) to the complicated systems of songbird and mammalian brains the principles governing initial wiring of the nervous system during development, rewiring of neural circuits as a result of injury or experience and changes with aging are being studied. The laboratories of Bottjer, and Finch currently provide a strong focus in this area.