By Amy Adams
Thomas Clandinin, professor of neurobiology, has been appointed the first Shooter Family Professor, created to support a member of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.
Clandinin’s work focuses on how neuronal circuits in the brain compute information. Throughout the brain, neurons take in information about the world around us – through sight, smell, touch, and other senses – and from that make decisions about how to react.
“Much of what the brain does is to identify correlations between signals,” Clandinin said. “Understanding the neural mechanisms that allow circuits to do this is therefore a problem of fundamental interest.”
Although Clandinin is ultimately interested in human brains and disease, he has primarily studied the visual system of the fruit fly, called drosophila, a common laboratory organism. Where human brains are hard to access and study, fruit flies are easy to work with in the lab and have many parallels with the human visual system.
Clandinin’s collaborations with electrical engineers, psychologists, biologists and neurologists have revealed many similarities between the brains of flies and humans. Both use related mechanisms to detect and react to motion, tracking light and dark regions as they move across the visual system.
For many years scientists had debated how the visual system decoded that movement.
“Rival theoretical models of how motion is computed in the visual system have existed side-by-side for decades,” said William Newsom, director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institutes. “Tom's group designed and carried out meticulous experiments to resolve this issue by combining the power of genetic dissection of neural circuits in drosophila with optical imaging of neural activity.”
Both humans and flies also have similarities in the cells involved in Parkinson’s disease.
“What is common between flies and humans is the underlying molecular mechanisms of how neurons work,” Clandinin said. “The genes associated with Parkinson’s disease act on these mechanisms, and by studying them in flies, we’ve discovered that they have new functions that relate directly to the disease.” He hopes to translate that work to the human disease.
Newsome said that Clandinin’s interdisciplinary approach to his work exemplifies what he hopes to achieve with the Institute.
“Through creative collaborations, Tom's lab has confirmed that the motion computation mechanism they identified in drosophila is likely at play in the human visual system as well. Tom's artful application of computational theory, genetics, cellular level imaging, and human psychophysics illustrates the value of interdisciplinary approaches.”
Clandinin is the first Shooter Family Professor, a gift from Eric and Elaine Shooter. Eric Shooter is a professor of neurobiology, emeritus, whose work has largely focused on how nerves grow. The Shooters hope this endowment will promote innovative and collaborative interdisciplinary research that will lead to breakthroughs in the understanding of brain function and human behavior.