Smith wins three-year Klingenstein Fund award to support neuroscience research

Spencer Smith, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology and physiology, and the UNC Neuroscience Center, will use the additional funding to pursue experiments to shed light on the role of dendrites in neuron function and computation.

Smith wins three-year Klingenstein Fund award to support neuroscience research click to enlarge Spencer Smith, PhD

Dr. Smith and his colleagues in the lab work on dendrites, tree-like structures that make connections with other cells to gather information for neurons. Their work shows evidence that the tree-like branches of dendrite, which were previously thought of as simple wires transmitting information, actually process information themselves in mammalian visual cortex in vivo.

“Imagine examining an electrical circuit under a microscope and finding that what you thought were wires are actually transistors,” said Dr. Smith.

In order to successfully examine the dendrites, which are two microns in diameter, less than 1/3 the width of a red blood cell, Dr. Smith custom built a laser-based, two-photon microscope. This custom microscope makes it possible to obtain recordings of electrical activity directly from dendrites.

“It is very rare to find a scientist who is well-trained in physics, optics and neuroscience,” said Carol Otey, PhD, chair of the department of cell biology and physiology, “and that is a powerful combination.”

The Klingenstein Fund supports researchers early in their careers who are engaged in basic or clinical research that may lead to a better understanding of neurological and psychiatric disorders. The award will provide $150,000 over a three-year period. The researchers will be able to carry out further experiments to investigate the nature of processing that dendrites perform.

“The award from the Klingenstein Fund is transformative. It will enable us to take on more ambitious experiments,” said Dr. Smith.