11/18/2010 08:00:00

David Anderson, Christof Koch Named Allen Distinguished Investigators

Two Caltech researchers have been named by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation among the inaugural group of Allen Distinguished Investigators.

Caltech's David Anderson and Christof Koch are two of the seven investigators who were honored by the foundation as it launched a new program to advance important research in neuroscience and cellular engineering.

"A year ago, I started searching for programs with potential for major breakthroughs but which had struggled to find funding through traditional sources," says Paul G. Allen. "The inaugural Distinguished Investigators are working on some of the most exciting research in biology and neurology and I'm proud to be able to help keep that work going."

David Anderson, the Benzer Professor of Biology at Caltech and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, was granted $1.6 million over three years for a project designed to localize, identify, characterize, and turn on neurons in the hypothalamus associated with attack, and bring the study of aggression into the modern molecular era.

More specifically, Anderson's project will use powerful genetic tools to try to identify specific classes of neurons that control emotional behaviors. Identifying such neurons will greatly facilitate the study of how they are wired into the brain's circuitry, and how this circuitry is affected by genetic and environmental factors that influence emotional behavior. Such studies could potentially lead to the development of new treatments for emotional disorders.

Christof Koch, the Lois and Victor Troendle Professor of Cognitive and Behavioral Biology and professor of computation and neural systems at Caltech, will use his three-year, $600,000 award for a project entitled "Evaluating Connectomes Using Measures of Complexity and Synergy." A connectome is the complete set of connections among all processing elements of a particular nervous system. Koch's group will specifically analyze the locomotion network in the roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans, with an eye toward assessing the information flow in the neural network that leads to a clearly measurable behavior.

Overall, Koch's group seeks to characterize the complexity of the connectome and its ability to integrate information using a combination of analysis and computation. The team proposes that integrated information—a measure that uses variables such as conditional entropy from information theory—is a critical property of nervous systems, and believes that evolution by natural selection gives rise to a systematic increase in the integrated information of brains. Koch and his colleagues propose to demonstrate this for both simulated artificial networks that evolve and/or learn as well as for extant neurobiological networks, such as the known locomotion network of C. elegans.

"One of the Foundation's goals is to support projects that create new knowledge about ourselves and our universe," says Susan M. Coliton, vice president of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. "Making investments in early stage, cutting-edge research leverages both our funding and the intellectual capital of talented scientists. We couldn't be more thrilled about the potential of this inaugural group of Allen Distinguished Investigators."

Written by Lori Oliwenstein