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Week of October 7, 2013

U-M professor earns Innovator Award

Our bodies do a lot more than dream during sleep, and some of the changes that happen in the brain influence our ability to form long-term memories.

Sara Aton, assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, was awarded a 2013 National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award for $1.5 million over five years to fund her research into how and why those brain changes impact memory.

The New Innovator Award supports novel approaches to solving major challenges in biomedical research. Aton is one of 41 scientists nationwide to receive the award.

Sivaraj Sivaramakrishnan, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology at the U-M Medical School, also received a $2.3 million New Innovator Award to study cell-signaling via protein kinases. Sivaramakrishnan is also an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Medical School and College of Engineering.

Aton’s lab is especially interested in how sleep contributes to consolidation, a process that’s critical for turning brief experiences into lasting memories. Consolidation drives changes in the brain that happen after new experiences, such as learning a task.

Eventually, Aton’s group may be able to identify the cellular output necessary for memory consolidation and test it in sleep-deprived animals to see if it can restore cognitive function.

“We know sleep is necessary to promote memory formation,” Aton said. “We know there are various changes in hormones, total brain activity, gene expression and protein translation that occur in the brain during sleep. We are trying to deconstruct these changes to determine which are necessary for memories to form.”

One technique Aton uses is optogenetics, which allows manipulation of specific brain circuits in mice during sleep. Researchers tag individual neurons in the brain with a light-sensitive chemical, and then deliver laser beams in specific wavelengths to the neuron to turn it on or off. In this way, Aton’s research group can study how this manipulation impacts the animal’s memory of prior experiences.

The research group also hopes to determine the cellular changes associated with both sleep-dependent memory formation and manipulation of the brain circuitry. This involves screening all the mRNA products produced by different populations of neurons.

“This is an expensive process that would not be possible without this grant,” Aton said.

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FACULTY SPOTLIGHT

Jeff Ringenberg, lecturer IV for the Computer Science Engineering Division of the College of Engineering, on what inspires him: “Innovation and the pace of technology — the next new thing is always right there.”