How does the brain work? The questions continue
UIC Researcher of the Year Award
Biology professor Simon Alford: colleagues describe him as “endlessly inventive” and “one of the finest academicians.”
Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin
The UIC Researcher of the Year Award, now in its third year, is given in four categories: social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering, clinical sciences and basic life sciences. Selected by the Campus Research Board and the vice chancellor for research, each winner receives a $3,500 cash prize.
Some people see the lowly lamprey as just another invasive Great Lakes pest. But they’re valuable lab animals to biology professor Simon Alford.
He uses the eel-like fish, with its large and very visible brainstem neurons, in pioneering studies on how nerve networks work.
Among his notable achievements, Alford and his students identified the biochemical mechanism by which serotonin, a key neurotransmitter in the pathology of depression, regulates the release of other neurotransmitters.
His lab discovered that this release after serotonin application can be rather nonconventional something researchers playfully describe as the “kiss and run” mode. These findings led other researchers to rethink how the brain’s circuitry works.
Understanding this complex signaling is important to developing more effective treatment of clinical depression.
Alford has published his findings in major journals such as Science, Nature Neuroscience and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
He began his research in the 1980s as a graduate student at the University of London in his native England.
“I was working on mechanisms by which the spinal cord generates locomotor output. This activity appears somewhat stereotypical, but the spinal circuits require synaptic connections and these connections are constantly being modified,” Alford says.
“It seemed a great opportunity to learn how synaptic plasticity and learning contribute to a behavior that is relatively easy to understand that being locomotion.”
His work, initially challenged by some, has been subsequently praised by many others.
Heidi Hamm, professor and chair of pharmacology at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, calls Alford a “great collaborator, wonderful scientist and fantastic colleague.”
In a letter recommending Alford for the Researcher of the Year award, Hamm wrote “he is endlessly inventive, and has the taste to use whatever preparation is the correct one to ask the question, and the optics and engineering skills to build whatever apparatus is needed to ask the next key question.”
Alford came to UIC in 1999 from the physiology department at Northwestern University’s medical school. Eugene Silinsky, professor and chairman of molecular pharmacology at Northwestern, wrote that Alford “is one of the finest academicians that I have yet encountered,” praising both his teaching and research abilities.
Alford remains endlessly curious about the human mind.
“‘How does the brain work?’ seems to be an interesting question albeit one that is a little tricky to answer,” says Alford.
“It has seemed to be, over the last two decades or so during which I have worked on the nervous system, that at each stage we think we understand how components like the synapse work.
“But, as we start to develop one level of understanding, this simply reveals deeper levels of ignorance.
“Perhaps when we start running out of these levels of ignorance, I will start to get uninterested but I’m not holding my breath.”
Other Researchers of the Year
Brian Bauer: Into the wild, using new ways of studying Inca civilization
Donald Morrison: Sharing results helps other scientists further their work
Ghanshyam Pandey: using basic science, clinical research to study depression, suicide