SWMed_PfeifferFebruary 23, 2016 – Dr. Brad Pfeiffer, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and a Southwestern Medical Foundation Scholar in Biomedical Research at UT Southwestern Medical Center, has been selected as a 2016 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellow in Neuroscience.

The award will further Dr. Pfeiffer’s studies tracking how neural circuits represent experiences, store information into long-term memory, and recall memories to plan future behaviors.

Dr. Pfeiffer’s lab is determining how the brain stores and retrieves information about the environment – such as the layout of a house or neighborhood – by studying neurons that are specifically activated when we explore large spatial areas. By recording the activity patterns of hundreds of such neurons, Dr. Pfeiffer gains insight into how the layout of a new environment, such as an unfamiliar supermarket, is stored in the brain and how the brain recalls the memory of a familiar environment to allow us to, for example, plan a route within the store. Elucidating these fundamental concepts is important for understanding both basic learning and memory mechanisms, and diseases ranging from traumatic brain injury to Alzheimer’s in which these processes are impaired.

“I am honored and grateful to be selected for a prestigious Sloan Foundation Fellowship, and I am excited about the opportunities this award will provide to further our research. The Sloan Foundation has a history of identifying and supporting excellent researchers, and I am honored to be included on that list,” said Dr. Pfeiffer, who joined the UT Southwestern faculty in 2015.

Sloan Research Fellowships seek to stimulate fundamental research by early-career scientists and scholars of outstanding promise in eight scientific and technical fields – chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences, and physics. The Fellowships, awarded annually in recognition of distinguished performance, offer a unique potential to researchers to make substantial contributions in their fields.

Dr. Pfeiffer’s work is the first to simultaneously record from several hundred neurons in the hippocampus in live animals while they are actively performing navigational tasks. The hippocampal region is important for many types of memory, including episodic memory (memories of events and related circumstances) and spatial memory (memory of one’s environment and place in it.)

Previous efforts had achieved electrophysiological recordings from tens of neurons. Being able to follow the activity of hundreds of neurons simultaneously allowed Dr. Pfeiffer, while working with his former postdoctoral mentor, Dr. David J. Foster, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, to track more complex behaviors used in decision-making. The research eventually may provide a better understanding of how experiences are encoded and transferred to different regions of the brain for long-term memory storage, then later retrieved so they can be acted upon when needed.

“My lab is interested in studying neuronal circuits that shape how information is represented in the brain and how experience itself may modify these circuits to consolidate long-term memory. In addition, we hope to understand how, from among the thousands of memories that we have formed throughout our lifetime, our brains can recall a single unique memory nearly instantly,” Dr. Pfeiffer said. “We approach these questions by using spatial navigation as an example of more general memory use. To assess how the brain stores or recalls a spatial memory, we directly monitor the activity of hundreds to thousands of neurons simultaneously as rats and mice engage in a variety of behavioral tasks.”

Specifically, Dr. Pfeiffer was able to show that prior to running through an environment, ensembles of cells in the rat’s hippocampus appear to mentally plan the animal’s future path in an extremely rapid manner. In just a few hundred milliseconds (roughly the time it takes to blink once), the hippocampus would briefly encode a mental path through the maze, a path that the rat would subsequently follow. Dr. Pfeiffer also has been able to demonstrate that during these brief bouts of memory recall and future planning, information is not presented in a temporally continuous fashion, but rather in discrete, temporally separated units, helping to resolve long-held questions in the field of computational neuroscience involving how sequential information can be accurately encoded by neural circuits.

“Dr. Pfeiffer is clearly one of the top young scientists in his field and well-deserving of this recognition and support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation,” said Dr. Joseph Takahashi, Chairman of Neuroscience, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and holder of the Loyd B. Sands Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience. “He is ideally poised to probe deeper into the synaptic mechanisms underlying the neuronal trajectory codes that he has discovered and to continue to push the technological boundaries of his field.”

Dr. Pfeiffer performed his graduate studies at UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and completed his postdoctoral training at Johns Hopkins University. He received his Bachelor of Science degree from UT San Antonio. 

Other UT Southwestern faculty members awarded Sloan Fellowships in the past include Dr. Uttam Tambar, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and a W.W. Caruth, Jr. Scholar in Biomedical Research, in 2013; Dr. Jennifer Kohler, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, 2009; Dr. Joseph Ready, Professor of Biochemistry and a Southwestern Medical Foundation Scholar in Biomedical Research, in 2009; and Dr. Jef De Brabander, Professor of Biochemistry and in the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, who holds the Julie and Louis Beecherl Jr. Chair in Medical Science, in  2001.

UT Southwestern recently established the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, a comprehensive initiative dedicated to better understanding the basic molecular workings of the brain and applying these discoveries to the prevention and treatment of brain diseases and injuries.