Understanding the brain remains one of the great intellectual challenges for science. To grasp the function of this marvelous organ, one needs to investigate structures, mechanisms, and dynamics that span across many spatial and temporal scales. For example, when we hear a sound, our brain is sensitive to time delays of just a few microseconds, yet the memory of that sound can last a lifetime—11 orders of magnitude longer. The span is similar in the spatial domain. The sheer number of nerve cells in the brain, approximately 1,011, suggests a coarse-grained treatment that glosses over the details of the individual neurons, yet a single nerve cell and even a single molecule can play a decisive role. For example, activation of a single light receptor in our eye leads to a visual percept that can ultimately direct our behavior.
Neurobiology at Caltech does, indeed, span this range. Our laboratories work on the molecular structure and function of channels and receptors; the integration of such molecules into signaling organelles like the synapse; the structure and function of single neurons; the integration of neurons of diverse types into circuits; and the collective function of these circuits in controlling behavior, perception, memory, action, cognition, and emotion. Another area of emphasis concerns the developmental mechanisms by which these structures form: the differentiation of neurons in early life, the genetic mechanisms that guide their synaptic wiring plan, and how subsequent experience modifies these connections. There is also increasing interest in leveraging the basic neurobiological insights to an understanding of brain disorders. Finally, Caltech’s traditional strength in engineering stimulates the development of new methods for brain science: from optical techniques to new twists of genetic engineering, to novel multi-electrode devices, to computational models and theories.
To further explore the range of brain research at Caltech—and enjoy some colorful pictures—please visit the neurobiology option website.