The brain is unlike any other organ in the body.
It’s incredibly complex, with 100 billion neurons tethered together in a vast network of interlocking circuits animated by electrical and chemical impulses. Yet it’s also even more than the sum of its parts. The brain is where we experience emotions like love and hate, the place that gives us consciousness.
Tianyi Mao, Ph.D., an assistant scientist with Vollum Institute at OHSU, spends her days grappling with one of the most confounding and entrancing questions in science: “How can we use our brains to understand our brains?”
It starts with an investment in the kind of basic research that is the Vollum’s specialty.
Mao has made significant progress in mapping what she refers to as the “connectome,” how different parts of the brain connect together to perform different tasks. Much of her work is focused on how the thalamus, the cortex and the striatum of the brain are connected with each other, specifically how the sensory and motor parts of the brain translate into higher executive functions. She also is interested in how the chemical transmissions of information at these connections break down in conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Starting with data collected from mice, Mao is piecing together a functional map of the brain that will ultimately be useful in treating and possibly preventing disease in people.
The work is challenging but also invigorating because there is so much uncharted territory to cover. In most cases, scientists are conducting research that’s never been attempted before. Many of their hypotheses prove to be incorrect, yet Mao and her colleagues are driven by the certainty that with struggle comes progress.
“That’s the excitement and the huge reward: Those moments when you say, ‘Oh, that’s how these cells work,’ and being the first one in the whole world to see it,” she said.
This type of basic research requires patience and time. “You can’t wait until somebody has a disease and say, ‘Cure this disease.’ This investment in science is really looking at decades,” Mao said.
Mao works with other researchers at the Vollum in an integrated fashion, including her husband Haining Zhong, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Vollum who has a background in computer science and microscopy. In fact, in 2015 Mao and Zhong earned a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the federal BRAIN Initiative to further their research into neuromodulation, the key mode of chemical communication between neurons in the brain. As they learn more about the brain’s connectome, they share their work with other investigators exploring different aspects of how the brain functions.
“Knowing the connectivity isn’t the end of it,” Mao said. “It’s just the beginning.”