Ofer Yizhar

On Thurs. July 16, the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science held a conference called “Shining New Light on the Mysteries of the Brain” with Ofer Yizhar, a neurobiology researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

Yizhar completed his undergraduate degree at Tel Aviv University and then his graduate degree in neurobiology at Stanford University, where he completed research until 2011.

“I think that the brain is the final frontier. It’s the most complicated organ in our body and it’s responsible for everything we do basically, so I think understanding it is really huge challenge,” Yizhar said during his lecture.

He went back to school when he decided to study neurobiology:

“I went into biology knowing that I wanted to somehow understand the brain, just because it was a big challenge and I think that psychiatric disease, which is obviously a disease of the brain, is continuously becoming more and more prevalent as the population ages, so it becomes a bigger and bigger emergent need to find treatments for psychiatric disease and I think that the only way to be able to make any progress into that is to have a better basic understanding of how the brain works.”

At Stanford, Yizhar began work with optogenetics. In his talk in San Diego, Yizhar explained that optogenetics allows for focused research on individual neurons. It is completed by taking a protein from algae that responds to light and inserting it into specific neurons. With a laser, these specific neurons are excited and scientists are able to see the effects on the subject.

Yizhar’s lab at the Weizmann Institute focuses on applying to optogenetics to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for problem solving, memory, impulse control, emotions, and complex thought.

Yizhar began his lecture at the San Diego Jewish Academy by telling the story of a man in the 1800s named Phineas Gage who had a freak accident and ended up with an iron rod driven through his head. Gage lived to tell the tale, but the effects on his personality were enormous because the rod had gone through the frontal area of his brain. This led to a major breakthrough about the prefrontal cortex’s role.

“I thought it (prefrontal cortex) is a fascinating brain region because we know so little about it,” Yizhar said.

Yizhar showed video clips of how, using optogenetics, they were able to make a mouse run around in circles, and said this is just the beginning for optogenetics.

He also explained how one of his colleagues created a tool that could connect to one specific neuron to record what is going on in the brain. This is being combined with optogenetics to record neurons interconnectivity within the brain.

Yizhar’s lab is currently, “trying to understand encoding of social information because we think that if we understand how the brain processes social information, we might understand how all these disorders actually lead to changes in social interactions.”

Yizhar said that these changes might give information about autism, schizophrenia, and depression because they are disorders that create a “strong social deficit” in people affected by them.

They are also working on pushing technology further and developing new tools for more specific neurobiological findings.

During the Q&A segment, someone mentioned that one of Yizhar’s papers had been approved for publication in Nature. Yizhar explained that the research being published is about the maternal reactions that females show more prominently than males.

In his research he found female mice that had given birth to pups had more dopamine neurotransmitters than males and females that hadn’t given birth to pups.

Through optogenetics they stimulated these neurotransmitters in female mice that hadn’t had pups and saw that the stimulation created maternal reactions in them too.

After his talk, I was curious to see how all of this research was being conducted in his lab. Yizhar told me that he comes into his lab first every morning and later on his students start arriving.

“We do very very diverse kinds of research at the same time, so there are many things going on at the same time and usually there’s going to be a student growing neurons in an incubator, there’s going to be a student training mice to do all kinds of complicated behaviors and a lot of the stuff we do is actually very intense computer analysis, so the students will either be doing an experiment, or they are going to be sitting on the computer working on a Mac lab or other computer programs trying to analyze the data that they acquired,” Yizhar said.

They have a close-knit community in their interdisciplinary lab and sometimes have lunch altogether.

The scientists in his lab are dedicated and when he comes back to the lab at around 10 or 11 p.m., he still finds some of his colleagues analyzing data.

With so many dedicated researchers, not only in Yizhar’s lab, but also at the Weizmann Institute, there’s no question about what they can achieve. Andy Weissman, the executive director of leadership giving at the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science mentioned some of the discoveries made at the Institute in the last month, including a way to detect autism in children based on their sense of smell.