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Brains Behind the Institute

Mark Schnitzer, Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute

Mark Schnitzer

Associate professor of biology and of applied physics

My lab and I have developed new technologies to image some amazing things in the brain, such as encoding memories or controlling motor actions.

We’ve created microscopes ranging from one of the world’s smallest fluorescence microscopes, which weighs 2-3 grams, to a very large, two-photon fluorescence microscope. Recently, we’ve used these and other imaging technologies to test explanations for brain disorders that lead to movement impairment, as in Parkinson’s disease, and those that lead to abnormal, uncontrollable movements, as in dyskinesia. We’ve been able to look at long-term memory in the hippocampus and amygdala as well.

The road to create these technologies was challenging, and one of the most important lessons I learned along the way was the value of a strategic retreat. In one of the microscopes that I built, I was using reflected light instead of fluorescence light, and the signals just weren’t promising enough. I hated to shift away from a direction I’d been working on for two years, but I also knew that it was possible to persist for too long. I’d learned a lot in those two years—including why the new approach was more promising. I made the switch and my research progressed much more quickly, which helped validate my choice.

I never imagined that I’d be studying models of Parkinson’s disease, though I was interested in applying optical approached to brain imaging and looking at how ensembles of neurons interact. But, as we gained more capability for imaging brain dynamics, opportunities to apply our techniques arose, and have been very fulfilling and meaningful. Based on my experiences, I think it’s crucial to cultivate a sense of judgement about what’s important to the field. It’s easy to get distracted by the most recent high-profile results, but developing a sense of what’s critical in the long run is key, and underlines the value of persistence.

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