Professor Christine Grienberger (BIOL) is a new faculty member at Brandeis. She is specifically an Assistant Professor of Biology. She is a neuroscientist whose research mainly focuses on understanding how information is processed in the mammalian brain. She looks at individual neurons and how they integrate synaptic inputs. Her lab studies the entorhinal-hippocampal circuit, which is important in spatial learning.
Grienberger is a medical doctor by training and became very interested in the brain during medical school in Germany when she did an internship in which she interacted with many Alzheimer’s patients. During medical school, she did a research thesis on Alzheimer’s using the mouse as a model organism. After that she decided to fully pursue research and completed her PhD. Currently she is studying learning and memory formation and how the brain is able to learn and store new information. She explains that a goal in her research is to “contribute my piece of the puzzle in understanding how learning and memory works.”
Grienberger’s research has implications for Alzheimer’s. She explains that Alzheimer’s patients do not progressively decline, they experience good phases in which they recognize their environment and bad phases when they do not recognize anything. This displays that Alzheimer’s is not only genetic, but neurons also play a role in this disease. She highlights, “Looking at the function of neurons and how they are active and how they store information is an important component to understanding pathologies like Alzheimer’s.”
Grienberger’s research uses mice as model organisms. Specifically, in experiments, mice complete learning tasks and the neurons in the brain are recorded in order to obtain data. A microscope or an electrode is used to record the activity of the cells. Then, researchers are able to look at neurons at different levels of complexity. Different techniques are used, including two-photon Ca2+ imaging, or whole-cell patch-clamp recordings, among other techniques, in order to look at activity in neurons. Researchers are able to look at individual cells or large populations of cells and discover changes in the structure of these neurons and the way they function. Grienberger explains that “I mostly focus on how these synaptic inputs are integrated in individual neurons to change the activity of an individual neuron.”
The learning tasks that the mice undergo include running on a treadmill and exposing different sensory cues such as items they can touch like velcro, sticks that touch their whiskers, or visual stimuli that makes them think they are running in a tunnel.
Grienberger highlights that for mice, studies have shown that smell or olfactory stimuli seems to increase connections between neurons. This is likely due to the fact that mice live in burrows underground and as a result, they are not as visual as we are. In contrast, she believes that for humans, we are very visual creatures, so visual stimuli may increase connections between neurons.
Mice are useful as a model organism as the structure and properties of their brain are very similar to that of humans. In addition, there are many tools that can be used to study the brains of mice. Grienberger explains that, “it’s the best compromise between doing something relevant for human diseases but also having tools available to understand the mechanisms involved.”
Overall, Grienberger hopes to understand more about the mammalian brain through studying how sensory stimuli affects neuronal connections and therefore memory in mice. Her research allows for an understanding of what increases connections between neurons in mice which has implications for neuronal connections in humans too and understanding how memory is affected by changes in neuronal connections.