Yuki Oka, assistant professor of biology and Chen Scholar, has received $1.5 million in funding from the New York Stem Cell Foundation. The award, distributed over five years, is one of three given internationally to early career neuroscience researchers. Oka is the first researcher at Caltech to receive the neuroscience investigator award.
"We study how the brain regulates innate behaviors such as ingestive and social behavior," says Oka. "We are particularly interested in how these behaviors have evolved to deal with their living environment."
Many of these innate behaviors are governed by hard-wired circuits of neurons in the brain. Currently, to study neural circuits, researchers mainly rely on so-called transgenic animals for labeling and manipulating neurons of interest. However, this process can take many years and is limited to only a few model species. Oka plans to use the new NYSCF funding to develop neuroscience tools that use gene-editing to study circuit function in the adult brain. "This study may expand circuit-level neuroscience research to non-model organisms," Oka adds.
Recently, the Oka laboratory published a series of papers describing how the mammalian brain detects internal dehydration and drives thirst, the neural basis of thirst processing in the brain, and the neural mechanisms underlying salt appetite and satiation.
Oka was named a Searle Scholar in 2015 and a McKnight scholar in 2016. Also in 2016, he received Klingenstein-Simons and Mallinckrodt fellowship awards. Oka is an affiliated faculty member of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.