PiN Faculty Member - Rachel Wilson, PhD

Rachel Wilson, PhD

Professor of Neurobiology
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Harvard Medical School
Department of Neurobiology
Warren Alpert Building, Room 320
200 Longwood Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Tel: 617-432-5571
Fax: 617-734-7557
Visit my lab page here.

Our mission is (1) to understand some of the computations that occur in the early stages of sensory processing by neural circuits, and (2) to describe the cellular, synaptic, and circuit mechanisms underlying these computations.

We use the brain of the fruit fly Drosophila to investigate these questions. This tiny brain contains only ~100,000 neurons, and many individual neurons are uniquely identifiable across flies. Moreover, the powerful genetic toolbox of this organism provides a unique combination of tools for labeling and manipulating neural circuits. Because some of the fundamental problems of early sensory processing are likely to be common to all species, we believe that some of the lessons we learn from this simple brain will provide clues to understanding similar problems in more complex brains.

We are studying several different regions of the Drosophila brain, with a particular emphasis on the olfactory and auditory systems. Our work focuses on a few key questions:

* How are odors and sounds represented in these brain regions?
* How are these representations reformatted (or "transformed") as they move from one brain region to another?
* What specific circuit, cellular, and synaptic mechanisms shape these transformations
* How do the properties of early sensory representations correlate with behavioral responses to these sensory stimuli?

We primarily use electrophysiological techniques (patch clamp recording and extracellular recording) to record the activity of individual identified neurons in vivo. To complement these electrophysiological techniques, we use a variety of genetic tools:

* We use the Gal4/UAS system to specifically label small subsets of neurons in the fly brain with fluorescent markers. This allows us to target our recording electrodes specifically to these neurons.
* We image patterns of activity in identified neurons by expressing a genetically-encoded calcium sensor in these neurons under Gal4/UAS control.
* We trace neural circuits by expressing genetically-encoded photoactivatable fluorophores under Gal4/UAS control and photoactivating in specific regions of interest.
* We use genetic tools to perturb patterns of electrical activity in neural circuits by manipulating expression of specific ion channels, receptors, or neurosecretory molecules.

Finally, we are devising sensitive behavioral paradigms for assessing sensory perception in individual flies. By comparing the impact of specific genetic manipulations on both neural activity and behavior, we aim to understand how patterns of electrical activity in the brain correspond to sensory perceptions.

Last Update: 6/19/2014


For a complete listing of publications click here.



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