As an undergraduate at Princeton, Jonathan Charlesworth ’07 had a broad interest in neuroscience, from cognitive psychology to the behavior of individual neurons. But a 400-level course with Professor Sam Wang helped to steer the molecular biology major toward neurobiology, the discipline he pursued in graduate studies at the University of California, San Francisco.
Last week, that work landed Charlesworth in Nature as first author of a remarkable study about the role one cluster of brain regions plays in the learning process of songbirds.
The study examined the role of the basal ganglia, sections of the brain below the cortex that act as a “learning hub,” receiving and processing detailed information from other regions. The basal ganglia serve the role of a coach, Charlesworth and his colleagues found. “It observes what other regions are doing and basically tells them how to do it better,” he says. (Read more in a news release from UCSF.)
Songbirds offer a convenient model to study skill learning, Charlesworth says, because they do not need to be trained – they learn to sing naturally by listening to adult birds. Researchers also can safely inactivate a specific region of the birds’ brains without harming the animals.
Understanding how different parts of the brain work and interact helps scientists to build hypotheses about how to treat certain brain disorders. For instance, Charlesworth says, the basal ganglia research could be helpful for those who study Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.
Charlesworth, a recent Ph.D. recipient, will be moving to Pasadena to begin a joint appointment at Caltech, serving as a visiting scholar while also working with a company called Neurotrek that aims to use ultrasound technology to noninvasively change the activity of neurons in the brain. But first, he plans to be back in Princeton this weekend for his fifth reunion.
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