Cohabitation in the New Science Building to Facilitate Studying the Sleeping Brain

How does the brain fall asleep? Does it switch off incoming information? Does it happen all at once? Do neurons 'switch over' in waves? 

Ironically, it's these questions which keep Katherine Nagel, PhD, and Nicholas Stavropoulos, PhD, both assistant professors in the Department of Neuroscience and Physiology and the Neuroscience Institute at NYU Langone Health, up at night. The shared research interests of these two scientists has sparked an exciting collaboration that will be greatly facilitated by their upcoming relocation to the same floor in the new Science Building. 

"My lab studies how information enters and flows through the brain by recording activity from individual neurons in the fruit fly," said Dr. Nagel, whose research group is able to identify and monitor the same neuron in the brains of different animals. "During one of our experiments, we noticed that the same exact cell had a different activity pattern in every brain we examined," continued Dr. Nagel. "There was something really interesting going on there, and we wondered whether the activity depended on the behavior of the fly." 

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Dr. Stavropoulos, a molecular geneticist and colleague in the department, uses the fly (right, a fly brain with neurons expressing the insomniac gene lighting up in green) to study the mechanisms regulating sleep. "We're interested in mechanisms that let animals fall asleep. We are trying to identify the molecules that help the brain toggle between slumber and being awake," he said. In conversations over lunch, Dr. Nagel and Dr. Stavropoulos realized that their research, although utilizing very different experimental approaches, might overlap in an exciting way.

What started out as a casual and fun conversation between colleagues about behavioral states, blossomed into a joint, ongoing project for the two research groups. While there is tremendous eagerness to join forces, the workflow is hampered by the current location of the Nagel and Stavropoulos labs, which are located in the Medical Science Building and Alexandria East, respectively. 

"We're all pretty excited about soon being around the corner from each other," said Dr. Stavropoulos. Added Dr. Nagel, "It'll certainly be much easier for the two of us to interact, but it's really going to have a tremendous impact on our respective students, who are constantly challenging themselves with new lab techniques."

Bringing researchers together is also an investment for the long haul. Frequent conversations between the two groups have already yielded projects around how sleep affects the processing of smell and the sensation of wind, and conversely, how sensory information arouses the sleeping brain. Time will tell what other questions co-habitation will inspire the two labs to tackle next.


Story reprinted with permission from The Office of Science and Research