Salk Institute
Kenta Asahina
Assistant Professor
Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory
Kenta Asahina

Assistant Professor
Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory


“To fully understand the inner mechanism of behavior control, we must uncover molecular events within neural circuits. This knowledge will not only reveal fundamental principles of the nervous system, but will be crucial for developing effective, specific and long-lasting pharmaceutical and clinical solutions to neural disorders, including behavioral and psychiatric disorders.”

Asahina’s laboratory strives to understand the connection between gene functions, the nervous system and behavior.

Animals are challenged by a constantly changing environment. They manage a fluctuation of varying physical and chemical stimuli, detected through various sensory organs. Animals process and integrate these stimuli, and then execute a set of motions, or behaviors, to adaptively respond to the changing conditions. Many animals under certain conditions perform stereotypical behaviors (innate behaviors), which are the result of the evolution to ensure survival.

But an animal is not merely a reflex machine. Animals’ responses to similar sensory stimuli vary among members of the same species or even in the same individual. Such behavior changes may be due to an animal’s experience, developmental stage or arousal levels. Animal behaviors can also be spontaneous, as they can begin actions without apparent external stimuli. These characteristics of animal behavior suggest there are inner factors–genetic and neurological–that contribute to the control of behaviors.

Asahina’s laboratory is aiming to uncover these genetic and neurological activities behind social behaviors to glean a big picture as to how animals behave and respond. A better understanding of animal behaviors can help target treatment for people displaying aberrant behavior–such as in the case of mental illness.

“Animal behavior — from the detection of sensory stimuli to execution of muscle movements — is controlled by the nervous system,” says Asahina. “It is therefore critical to elucidate the neural circuits that control and modulate a specific behavior, address what triggers excitation of the circuits, and understand how each neural component contributes to the given behavior.”

To fully understand the circuit operation, however, researchers need to uncover molecular events within and between neurons comprising the circuit. This knowledge will reveal fundamental workings of nervous system functions, as well as to help point the way to treatments for neural disorders, including behavioral and psychiatric disorders.

Asahina is currently using the vinegar fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism and employing multidisciplinary approaches, including advanced genome editing, gene expression control, neuronal manipulations with optogenetics, functional neuronal imaging, and computational behavioral analysis. His lab is also interested in expanding the research scope to comparative genomics, evolutionary ethology, and social behaviors.


Selected Publications

Asahina, K., Watanabe, K., Duistermars, B.J., Hoopfer, E., González, C.R., Eyjólfsdóttir, E.A., Perona, P., Anderson, D.J. Sexually dimorphic Tachykinin-expressing neurons control male-specific aggression in Drosophila. Cell 156, 221-235 (2014)

Asahina, K.*, Louis, M.*, Piccinotti, S. and Vosshall, L.B. A circuit supporting concentration-invariant odor perception in Drosophila. J. Biol. 8, 9 (Epub) (2009) (* equal contribution)

Asahina, K., Pavlenkovich, V., and Vosshall, L.B. The survival advantage of olfaction in a competitive environment. Curr, Biol. 18, 1153-1155 (2008).

Fishilevich, E., Domingos, A.I., Asahina, K., Naef, F., Vosshall, L.B. and Louis, M. Chemotaxis behavior mediated by single larval olfactory neurons in Drosophila. Curr Biol 15, 2086-2096 (2005).

Invited review publication

Asahina, K. and Benton, R., Meeting Report: Smell and Taste on a high — Symposium on Chemical Senses: From Genes to Perception. EMBO Report 8, 634-638 (2007).

Awards and Honors

  • 2009 BioMed Central Biology Prize
  • 2011 JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship for Research Abroad

Links

To Study Aggression, a Fight Club for Flies
The New York Times - February 3, 2014


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