While sleep may knit up “the ravell’d sleave of care, ” unraveling how brain changes unique to sleep affect memories is the aim of University of Michigan molecular biologist Sara Aton. An assistant professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, Aton has just been awarded a 2013 National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award, which aims to provide support for highly innovative approaches to major contemporary challenges in biomedical research. The award will provide $1.5 million over 5 years to support Aton’s work.
Aton's lab is especially interested in how sleep contributes to a process called consolidation, which drives adaptive changes in the brain following new experiences, like learning a new task. Consolidation is critical for turning brief experiences into long-lasting memories.
“We know sleep is necessary to promote memory formation. 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 different changes to determine which are necessary for memories to form.”
One technique that she employs is optogenetics. This allows the manipulation of specific brain circuits in mice during sleep. Individual neurons in the brain can be tagged with a chemical that is sensitive to light. Then using fiber optics to deliver laser light of specific wavelengths to the neurons they can be turned off and on while the animal sleeps. Aton’s research group can then see what effect this has on the animal’s memory of prior experiences.
Taking this a step further, they will try to determine what cellular changes are associated with both sleep-dependent memory formation, and that light-mediated 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 says.
Eventually, Aton’s group may be able to identify the cellular output necessary for memory consolidation and then test it in sleep-deprived animals to see if it can restore cognitive function in the animals.
Aton is one of 41 scientists across the United States to receive a New Innovator Award, which It supports investigators who are within 10 years of their terminal degree or clinical residency, but who have not yet received a major NIH grant, to conduct exceptionally innovative research. Sivaraj Sivaramakrishnan, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology, U-M Medical School also received an award this year.
National Institutes of Health : www.nih.gov
New Innovator Awards: http://commonfund.nih.gov/newinnovator/