New Assistant Professor: Sandra Kuhlman, Ph.D. -Department of Biological Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

New Assistant Professor: Sandra Kuhlman, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Appointments, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) & Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Ph.D. in Physiology, University of Kentucky

When faced with a new challenge, humans can achieve expert performance through practice. My research goal is to understand how neural networks in the cortex are altered during new skill acquisition to promote appropriate behavioral responses and to understand how the circuitry for learning is established during development. By understanding how microcircuits are altered during learning, we hope to be able to rescue learning deficits at the molecular and/or genetic insult level to restore circuit function.

My laboratory will visualize and track circuit changes in mice as they learn new skills through multiphoton laser-scanning microscopy as well as splicing jellyfish and coral DNA that codes for fluorescent protein into the genome of mice.

I currently collaborate with a vision lab at UCLA and a lab at UC Irvine specializing in a ‘laser scanning photostimulation’ technique. This technique quantifies strengths of connections among neurons within a local microcircuit. Our team has discovered that manipulation of visual experience very rapidly alters how inhibitory circuits are recruited in the brain, and that this appears to be required for adaptation to the
new condition. I also work with a lab at The Johns Hopkins University training mice to discriminate the position of a small object, and imaging the cortex as the mouse becomes an expert at localizing the object. We find a significant change in the connections between sensory and motor brain areas. This change actually precedes improved performance, so it may be a predictor of future expertise.

In the future, I hope to collaborate with David Lewis’s lab at the University of Pittsburgh. We have a common interest in molecular signaling pathways, which are required for inhibitory neurons to wire up into cortical circuits. I also look forward to interacting with Carnegie Mellon engineers, such as Shawn Kelly, to develop sophisticated brain activity monitors so biofeedback may be used to accelerate learning and perhaps rescue learning deficits.

Photo: By Alexander de Ronde for the Department of Biological Sciences