Alice Nam

Graduate Student Researcher, Carnegie Mellon University

Alice Nam received her B.S. in biology from Brandeis University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University. Her work focuses on parallel tactile processing in S1 and SC in detection behavior, primarily using optogenetics and in-vivo electrophysiology. Throughout her career thus far, she has served as a mentor to several undergraduate students, technicians and graduate students and hopes to continue this role. Her goal is to continue in academia and pursue long-term and high quality mentoring. Currently, her work is supported by the NINDS T32 training grant “Big Data Systems Neuroscience” (award no. 1T32NS126122-01).

Principal Investigator: Kate Hong

Fellow: Baihe Zhang

Undergraduate Fellow Project: Recent studies have demonstrated that the primary somatosensory cortex (S1) is crucial in more complex tasks such as texture discrimination but is not essential for a simple detection behavior, although there was a transient deficit. The evolutionarily newer neocortex has been thought to add complexity and nuance such that animals can perform tasks of higher cognitive load. The superior colliculus (SC) is an evolutionarily ancient midbrain structure that mediates rapid responses to the detection of salient stimuli. Is SC capable of mediating tactile detection even without S1’s influence? If so, what does S1 contribute to the evolutionarily ancient SC?

To address this, we trained animals on a novel, passive yes/no whisker-mediated tactile detection paradigm and manipulated S1 with optogenetics. When we silence S1, animals’ performance is significantly impaired only when the stimulus is of low salience, and unaffected for the zero and maximum stimuli. Electrophysiological recordings show that SC activity at the low salience stimulus trials are significantly modulated by S1, and again, unaffected for the zero and maximum. This suggests that S1 facilitates SC when the stimulus is harder to detect, by modulating SC’s neural activity. The SURFiN fellow will have the opportunity to engineer custom-made behavior training boxes, train mice on the novel behavior paradigm, process and image brain tissue, and learn basic coding on C++ and MATLAB to analyze behavior data. Overall, the mentee on this project will thoroughly learn and experience many facets of systems neuroscience.

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