Kenta Asahina

Assistant Professor

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

The Helen McLoraine Developmental Chair in Neurobiology

Salk Institute for Biological Studies - Kenta Asahina

Current Research

The Problem

Whether you’re a human or an insect, behavior is ultimately supported by functions of molecules. Genetic circuitry and molecular interactions give rise to an animal’s choice on how to react to its environment. However, behavior is not always predictable—it can vary dramatically depending on an animal’s internal states, experience and reactions from other individuals. Understanding what goes haywire in brains of the socially impaired (such as in autism or attention-deficit disorders) is the first step in developing effective and specific treatments for such neurological disease. It can be difficult, however, to study the basis for behaviors and pathologies in humans, in part because our nervous systems are so complex.

The Approach

To begin to unravel complex social reactions, Kenta Asahina is studying behavior at the most fundamental level. Asahina is currently using the vinegar fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism to understand the simple genetic and neural circuits that cause responses like aggression and escape. It’s not just about a single “aggression gene” however—genes and neurons are just the beginning. By tracing how the molecular underpinnings of behaviors give rise to more complicated brain activity, he aims to eventually understand social interactions in humans.

To unravel the fundamentals of behavior, he is using multidisciplinary approaches, including advanced genome editing, gene expression control, optogenetic techniques for controlling neurons with light, 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.

The Innovations and Discoveries

Asahina discovered a neuropeptide and several neurons crucial for aggression in vinegar flies. The neuropeptide has been linked to aggressive behavior in several mammals.

He is expanding on understanding how behavior circuits interact with each other and what makes an animal choose one behavior over another (eating instead of mating, for example).

He has begun to find “common motifs” between genes that spur behavior for both vinegar flies and mammals and aims to translate his findings into more precise pharmaceutical targets for people displaying aberrant behavior, such as in the case of mental illness.

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BS, Zoology, University of Tokyo
PhD, Neurobiology, Rockefeller University


Awards & Honors

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