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OHSU research couple receives $5 million grant to study deep inside the brain

Tianyi Mao said working together and being married has its challenges and rewards. “We can do pretty much everything in-house and we don’t have to go far,” she said. “And this saves time and makes things much more efficient. Sometimes, you know, couple collaboration works better and some days we’re like, ‘I don’t even want to see you anymore.’ But I think scientifically this is what brings us together.’” (KATU)

An almond-shaped structure buried deep in the brain called the amygdala (ah-mig-duh-lah) is believed to be the seat of our emotions, memory and the flight or fight reflex.

Two brain research scientists at OHSU’s Vollum Institute are using a $5 million grant to map its functions.

“Because it's buried deep in the brain, it's a little harder to study using imaging methods because our brain is not very optically friendly,” says research scientist Tianyi Mao. “It's like an opaque lump of tissue.”

Mao and her husband, scientist Haining Zhong, have been married for 13 years after meeting at John Hopkins Medical Center as graduate students.

She's an expert in brain circuits and he specializes in microscopes.

Zhong said using a special lens that can see into the brain through a needle, they can poke into the brain with very little damage and watch as their rodent test subjects function normally.

“This is a relatively small brain structure that has a diverse function,” Zhong said.

An earlier $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health helped them develop customized equipment to see the amygdala in rodents in action.

“Our tool will allow us to peek in, dissect out exactly how this small structure can do so many magic things,” Mao said.

She compared studying the amygdala to studying a computer chip by using the method of reverse engineering.

“You need to know how the circuit map is here, what's the component?" Mao said. "Who is talking to who so when you have a problem you can say, "Here's the problem, I can fix it.'

“I want to be the person to bring you this circuit map, so I can tell you exactly how different parts were connected," she said.

The couple is using rodent brains to conduct their study, but eventually hope what they learn will help doctors more effectively treat anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in humans.

Mao said working together and being married has its challenges and rewards.

“We can do pretty much everything in-house, and we don’t have to go far,” she said. “And this saves time and makes things much more efficient.”

“Sometimes, you know, couple collaboration works better and some days we’re like, ‘I don’t even want to see you anymore.’ But I think scientifically this is what brings us together.’”

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