Introducing Assistant Professor Aryn Gittis-Department of Biological Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Introducing Assistant Professor Aryn Gittis

The Department of Biological Sciences is proud to announce neuroscientist Dr. Aryn Gittis has joined the faculty as an assistant professor. Gittis comes to Carnegie Mellon University from a postdoctoral research position at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease. She also received her doctorate in neuroscience from the University of California, San Diego.

Tell us a little about the research that you plan to conduct at Carnegie Mellon.
My research studies the organization and function of neural circuits in the basal ganglia, a primary motor control system in the brain. We are interested in how neurons in the basal ganglia wire together to create circuits and how these circuits are changed by experience and in movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease and dystonia. We do our research in mice, where we can genetically label specific neural circuits for electrophysiological analysis and direct activation.

What are some potential implications from your work?

The basal ganglia are involved in a number of functions in the brain. In addition to motor control, they are also important for learning, motivation, and reward. A wide range of diseases are associated with dysfunction of the basal ganglia, including movement disorders such as Parkinson's disease and dystonia, psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, and also various forms of addiction. Developing a better understanding of how neural circuits are organized in the basal ganglia brings us closer to the ability to develop better treatments for a broad spectrum of human diseases.

In general, where is your field of research heading?

It is an exciting time for basal ganglia research. In the last 10 years, new tools have been developed that enable an unprecedented ability to target and manipulate neural circuits in living animals. These tools are especially powerful in the basal ganglia, where neurons with very different functions are all intermingled with each other. Now, we have the ability to turn these different cell types on and off with high precision, enabling direct analysis of how complex neural circuits in the basal ganglia regulate behavior. Over the next 20 years, I predict we’ll see even more novel techniques to specifically manipulate neural circuits. It is my hope that we can translate these advances in basic research into new strategies to repair basal ganglia function in a variety of human diseases.

Can you tell us about any current collaborations as well as your plans for future collaborations?
I am beginning to work with Alison Barth's lab to understand how sensory areas of the brain are represented in the basal ganglia. We would like to understand how sensory information affects the function of the basal ganglia, which is typically thought of as a motor circuit. I am also excited about the possibility of collaborating with computer scientists or mathematicians to develop more useful computer models of basal ganglia function.

What part of coming to Carnegie Mellon are you most excited about?

CMU is a wonderful, supportive environment that is part of a large network of researchers working to understand brain function. I am particularly excited about the CNBC, which brings together researchers at CMU with neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh and provides a great community for collaboration and discussion of new ideas.