Neuroscience and Neurological Disorders

Overview

Overview


We humans have a dilemma: our brains are both exceptionally capable and exquisitely vulnerable. We are capable of music, art, mathematics, dance and other remarkable feats. But we also are at risk of a host of diseases, from autism during childhood to Alzheimer’s late in life. At the Salk Institute, we illuminate how genes control neurons, how neural circuits process information and how our brains enable us to think and make decisions. By combining these approaches, we are making rapid progress in decoding the brain. We are entering a new era in neuroscience where our knowledge of the brain matches the urgent need to prevent and treat disease of the brain.

Research


ALS

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a neurodegenerative disease that attacks motor neurons controlling voluntary movement, leading to progressive paralysis and muscle atrophy. The typically fatal disorder, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, was named after the legendary New York Yankee slugger who died of the mysterious illness in 1941. Although ALS was first classified as a disease over 140 years ago, there are still few clues as to its cause. At Salk, we are uncovering the origins of the disease, from identifying genetic mutations linked to the disorder to explaining how it damages the neural circuits that facilitate movement. We think knowledge is power; and we are leveraging that power to stop this deadly disease.

Martyn Goulding

Professor

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

Kuo-Fen Lee

Professor

Clayton Foundation Laboratories for Peptide Biology

Samuel Pfaff

Professor

Gene Expression Laboratory

Paul Sawchenko

Professor and Laboratory Head

Laboratory of Neuronal Structure and Function

Dave Schubert

Professor and Laboratory Head

Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease robs people of thinking skills and memory, stealing their ability to recognize their loved ones and to carry out the most basic tasks. There are no treatments for this progressive, ultimately fatal disease, which affects more than 5 million Americans. We want to change that. At the Salk Institute, we are searching for the root causes of Alzheimer’s disease, exploring how aging cells within the brain, along with genetic mutations and errant proteins, contribute to the disorder. This disease-specific research is a beacon of hope for the millions of patients with Alzheimer's disease and their families.

Nicola Allen

Assistant Professor

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

Rusty Gage

Professor

Laboratory of Genetics

Martin Hetzer

Professor

Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory

Axel Nimmerjahn

Assistant Professor

Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center

John Reynolds

Professor

Systems Neurobiology Laboratories

Paul Sawchenko

Professor and Laboratory Head

Laboratory of Neuronal Structure and Function

Dave Schubert

Professor and Laboratory Head

Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory

Terrence Sejnowski

Professor and Laboratory Head

Computational Neurobiology Laboratory

Autism

Children with autism spectrum disorder, which ranges widely in severity, are typically socially withdrawn, unresponsive to communication, and unable to empathize with others. They may also engage in repetitive movements, such as rocking, or in self-abusive behavior, such as biting or head banging. At the Salk Institute, we are working to decipher what goes wrong in a child’s brain to cause this debilitating disease. We are exploring how the neurons in an autistic child differ from those of other children, both in their genetic makeup and in how they connect and communicate with one another. We are studying how the brain processes information and how autism disrupts its ability to function normally. By deciphering the underlying causes of autism, we are explaining the entire spectrum of autism and paving the way to cures.

Thomas Albright

Professor and Director

Vision Center Laboratory

Nicola Allen

Assistant Professor

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

Kenta Asahina

Assistant Professor

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

Ursula Bellugi

Professor and Director

Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience

Edward Callaway

Professor

Systems Neurobiology Laboratories

Sreekanth Chalasani

Assistant Professor

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

Rusty Gage

Professor

Laboratory of Genetics

John Reynolds

Professor

Systems Neurobiology Laboratories

Dave Schubert

Professor and Laboratory Head

Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory

Bipolar Disorder

People with bipolar disorder, a brain condition also know as manic depression, suffer from dramatic changes in mood and activity levels that can damage the person’s ability to function normally, as well as ruin professional and familial relationships. Bipolar disorder runs in families, but the precise genetic underpinnings remain a mystery, as do the structural and functional differences within the brain. At Salk, we are exploring how the brain cells of a person with bipolar disorder differ in their genetic makeup and in how they connect and communicate with one another. We are studying how the brain processes information and controls a person’s moods and how bipolar disorder disrupts this ability. By deciphering the underlying causes of bipolar disorder, we are laying the groundwork to heal people’s brains and improve their lives.

Rusty Gage

Professor

Laboratory of Genetics

Satchidananda Panda

Associate Professor

Regulatory Biology Laboratory

Paul Sawchenko

Professor and Laboratory Head

Laboratory of Neuronal Structure and Function

Depression

Depression drains happiness from people’s lives. This disorder, which affects more than 350 million worldwide, causes people to feel sad, worthless, tired and disinterested in the things that normally bring them great pleasure. The result is broken families, lost jobs and an estimated 1 million suicides each year. But what is depression? The only thing we can say for sure is: we don’t know. At its root, depression is a disorder of the brain, so at the Salk Institute, we are looking deep into the brain cells and neural circuits involved in depression. We want to know how depression disrupts normal communication between brain cells and how this breakdown leads to a pathological mental state. Understanding what is happening in the brain is critical to preventing and treating this all-too-common condition.

Rusty Gage

Professor

Laboratory of Genetics

Satchidananda Panda

Associate Professor

Regulatory Biology Laboratory

Paul Sawchenko

Professor and Laboratory Head

Laboratory of Neuronal Structure and Function

Huntington's Disease

Huntington’s disease is caused by a genetic mutation that leads to progressive damage to parts of the brain responsible for movement and behavior. The disease, which has no cure, undermines a person’s physical and mental abilities and ultimately leads to death. Individuals with Huntington’s disease have a 50/50 chance of passing this fatal neurological disorder on to their children. At Salk, we are studying the cascade of genetic and molecular damage caused by the gene mutation linked to Huntington’s. Using cutting-edge technology, we are mapping the architecture and function of the brain centers most affected by the disease. Our ultimate goal is to stop the tragic toll Huntington’s takes on patients and their families.

Edward Callaway

Professor

Systems Neurobiology Laboratories

Xin Jin

Assistant Professor

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

Parkinson’s Disease

The devastating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are linked to the loss of a specific type of brain cell responsible for producing dopamine, a molecule critical for brain function. People with this disorder suffer from a range of debilitating problems, including tremors, rigidity of the limbs and trunk, loss of coordination, and depression and anxiety. While treatments exist to help address the symptoms, there currently is no cure for the disease. At the Salk Institute, we are identifying the mutated genes and proteins involved in Parkinson’s disease, and tracing how these molecular malefactors damage the brain. We are charting the architecture of the brain centers altered by Parkinson’s disease to understand how to block or even reverse the effects of this terrible disorder.

Edward Callaway

Professor

Systems Neurobiology Laboratories

Martyn Goulding

Professor

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

Martin Hetzer

Professor

Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory

Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte

Professor

Gene Expression Laboratory

Xin Jin

Assistant Professor

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

Axel Nimmerjahn

Assistant Professor

Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center

Samuel Pfaff

Professor

Gene Expression Laboratory

Paul Sawchenko

Professor and Laboratory Head

Laboratory of Neuronal Structure and Function

Dave Schubert

Professor and Laboratory Head

Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory

Terrence Sejnowski

Professor and Laboratory Head

Computational Neurobiology Laboratory

Schizophrenia

People with schizophrenia, a severe and chronic brain disorder, suffer terrifying and debilitating hallucinations, paranoia and anxiety. Currently, just over one percent of the world's population has schizophrenia, with an estimated three million individuals in the United States alone. The cause of the disease remains a mystery, and current treatments focus only on addressing the symptoms. At the Salk Institute, we are working to expose the root causes of this terrible disease. We are charting how broken genes, neurons and information-processing circuits in the brain give rise to the debilitating symptoms. Our work is paving the way to powerful new therapies that target the causes of schizophrenia, not just the symptoms.

Thomas Albright

Professor and Director

Vision Center Laboratory

Edward Callaway

Professor

Systems Neurobiology Laboratories

Rusty Gage

Professor

Laboratory of Genetics

Terrence Sejnowski

Professor and Laboratory Head

Computational Neurobiology Laboratory

Spinal Cord Injury

A serious spinal cord injury is a life-changing experience. It impairs movement and limits sensation and can result in partial or total paralysis, depending on what part of the spine is damaged. At the Salk Institute, we begin by studying how stem cells turn into different types of neurons during early development, including how they form connections between the brain and limbs. We are also searching for ways to generate new neurons to replace those damaged in spinal cord injury. By deciphering how spinal neurons seek out and make connections with other neurons, we hope to learn how to regrow the neural circuits damaged in an injury to the spinal cord.

Martyn Goulding

Professor

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

Kuo-Fen Lee

Professor

Clayton Foundation Laboratories for Peptide Biology

Samuel Pfaff

Professor

Gene Expression Laboratory

Williams Syndrome

Williams syndrome is a genetic disorder that impacts around one in every 20,000 births. Children affected by it share a variety of physical traits, including heart defects and a distinct set of facial abnormalities. While this puzzling disorder leaves language, facial recognition and social skills remarkably well-preserved, it conveys severe deficits in other cognitive aptitudes. At Salk, we are exploring the underlying biological basis for this disorder, both to understand Williams and to help explain how genetic mutations cause other inherited developmental disorders such as autism and dyslexia. Our research is providing a unique window into how missing genes, and the resulting changes in brain structure and function, ultimately shape behavior.

Ursula Bellugi

Professor and Director

Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience

Rusty Gage

Professor

Laboratory of Genetics

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