For Ahissar and Kleinfeld, Findings About Rodent Whiskers Are Having Significant Impact on Understanding the Nervous System
Even before they received their first BSF grant as partners in 2003, Ehud Ahissar and David Kleinfeld already benefited from BSF’s mission to pair promising Israelis and Americans together.
Ahissar, who is Israeli, and Kleinfeld, who is American, previously received BSF grants when they were part of separate teams during the 1990s. When they decided to work together, BSF was a natural fit.
“We thought that BSF would be very receptive to what we were doing, and fortunately, this has worked out very well for us,” Ahissar said.
Indeed, it has. Ahissar is currently a neurobiology professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot and Kleinfeld is a physics professor at the University of California San Diego. They are now sharing their fourth BSF grant for their work on so-called “brain loops” that act as mediators between the brain’s sensory inputs and motor outputs. Brain loops, located in the brainstem, control many important bodily functions, including breathing, movement, balance, sniffing, chewing and speaking. Ahissar and Kleinfeld are attempting to answer long-held questions about how these motor actions work together as part of the nervous system.
Their work so far has focused primarily on studying rodents – and particularly, their whiskers. While many animals have whiskers, it’s still not fully known how animals use them. In their previous research, Ahissar and Kleinfeld discovered that rodents use their whiskers to help them process where objects are located. They also identified new types of muscles in the snout that assist rodents in experiencing touch and smell. They hope their findings will lead to advancing the development of devices for sensory substitution,
prosthetics and robotics.
Ahissar and Kleinfeld both agree that their divergent backgrounds are an advantage when it comes to their partnership, especially at a time when science is just now beginning to fully comprehend the brain’s numerous regions and complex functions.
In describing his neurophysics research at his lab in San Diego, Kleinman likes to take a cue from one of his late heroes, David Bowie.
“It’s about turning and facing the strange,” he said. “With my physics background, I’m very interested in ways that we can use modern physics and engineering to gain key insight into things we still don’t know. When it comes to brainstem circuits, there is still much that we do not know,” Kleinfeld said.
Ahissar’s lab at the Weitzmann Institute focuses on how the brain perceives the world via the senses of touch and vision.
“These acts are seemingly effortless, but there is actually a lot going on that we do not fully understand,” Ahissar said.
They both agree that the multiple BSF grants have been highly beneficial, not only for the continuation of their own working relationship, but also because they have allowed for increased interaction between their respective colleagues and students, both in Israel and in the United States.
According to Ahissar, this is “a very exciting time to be involved with this kind of work, with all the discoveries that are being made. It is very gratifying to know that BSF h
as been a part of this process and that they have helped us for so many years now.”