Virtual reality uncovers clues to decision making
What happens in the brain when we enter an unfamiliar place? How do we know how to get home from work? In short, what drives our most basic decisions? Chris Harvey, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Neurobiology at HMS, is answering these questions, thanks to a $1.5 million grant from the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF).
Harvey's research focuses on the neuronal circuit mechanisms that drive short-term memory and decision-making. Funding from NYSCF will support studies into how the brain integrates sensory information to reach a destination. "We’re essentially trying to figure out how the brain makes decisions," Harvey says, adding that these processes are at the core of many neuropsychiatric diseases.
Using a mouse-model system and a virtual-reality environment, lab mice will navigate through virtual streets populated with different visual objects and, based on what they see, determine whether to turn left or right to get a reward. Harvey's lab has developed microscopy methods to take photos and movies of brain activity in these mice as they make decisions. He hopes this work will identify which brain areas are necessary for navigation-based decisions and actually see how these choices are made in the brain.
With this model, Harvey is exploring a new avenue of research that has never been conducted before, which is precisely what made the project attractive to the NYSCF. The foundation is known for supporting early investigators who have started labs in the past five years and whose innovative ideas are potentially high risk, but could also carry a high reward. "These young investigators truly undertake the most daring yet rewarding stem cell research. We are all honored to support the future investigations," says Susan L. Solomon, chief executive officer of NYSCF.
"They really promote the idea of taking a risk and going after big ideas, and the work we're doing fits into that nicely," says Harvey. "The grant allows us to start going after new ideas that haven't yet been worked on."
The NYSCF conducts translational stem cell research in its New York laboratory. Its mission is to accelerate cures for the major diseases of our time through stem cell and neuroscience research.
"It is such a pleasure to award the critical research undertaken by these young scientists that has the potential to completely revolutionize modern medicine," said selection committee member Pete Coffey, DPhil, co-executive director of translation at UC Santa Barbara's Center for Stem Cell Biology.
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