Mapping of the Mind Brings Prestigious Award To Two Neuroscientists

Issue Date: 
October 26, 2015

Susanne Ahmari began her journey into neuroscience as a student researcher in the lab of a professor who, she later learned, was a world-renowned neuroscientist. For Marlene Cohen, it was a chance attendance at a public talk by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor that first piqued her interest in the field. But while serendipity may have played a role in the academic careers of these two women—now both Pitt professors—there is nothing happenstance about their recent selection as 2015 McKnight Scholars, one of the nation’s most prestigious accolades for emerging neuroscience researchers.

Susanne Ahmari (Photos by Sarah Collins / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Presented by The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience, the awards grant $75,000 annually for three years to scientists in the early stages of establishing their own independent laboratories and research careers and who have demonstrated a commitment to neuroscience. 

The honor brings prominent recognition not only to the awardees but also to the University of Pittsburgh. In the past decade, only two other institutions—Columbia University (2011) and Stanford University Medical School (2006, 2007)—have had two McKnight Scholars named in the same year.

Susanne Ahmari is a Pitt assistant professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine. Her introduction to neuroscience came when she was a freshman at the University of Illinois. After receiving a scholarship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to participate in undergraduate research, she joined a lab run by William Greenough, a pioneer in the study of how learning and memory occurs in the brain.

“Little did I know at the time,” Ahmari recalls, “that he was one of the world leaders in neuroscience. He had discovered that our brains are plastic even when we age, and that older animals can form new synaptic connections and can actually learn new things if they’re put in an enriched environment, or if they exercise. … So in his lab, it was a rich experience that hooked me on neuroscience.”

She received her honors biology degree from the University of Illinois in 1996, and, during her time in the Greenough lab, Ahmari gradually began to feel a pull toward the field’s clinical side. “I wanted whatever I did to be relevant to human disease, to human illness. And I started to recognize that even though what I was working on ultimately would be relevant—that it was going to be a while.”

In 1996, Ahmari enrolled in Stanford University’s Medical Scientist Training Program, where she pursued a combined medical degree and doctoral degree in molecular and cellular physiology. There, she engaged in cutting-edge research technologies, and later, during a psychiatry residency at Columbia University, she encountered equally fascinating clinical cases. The patients she became most drawn to were those suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). 

“Since that stage [of my career], it’s just been a fantastic convergence of ideas and opportunities.” 

In 2013, Pitt recruited Ahmari from Columbia to launch and direct a lab in translational OCD research. She and her team use mouse models to identify circuit changes in the brain that underlie OCD-related behaviors. The McKnight funds are supporting the lab’s use of new imaging technologies to directly visualize neuronal activity as compulsive behaviors develop. 

Ahmari says she is living the MD-PhD dream. “I’ve just always been very interested in the kinds of questions that go along with psychiatry, in terms of, ‘What are thoughts? What are emotions? How are these things manifested in our brains? How do we learn and engage with other people?’ And to me, the realm of psychiatric illness is absolutely where many of those questions are centered. It’s one of the places where you truly can be a neuroscientist and a doctor, and have them work together.”

Marlene Cohen Marlene Cohen is a Pitt assistant professor of neuroscience in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. Her fascination with neuroscience began when she was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology math major. She attended a public lecture by MIT neuroscientist Matt Wilson and became inspired by his work on hippocampal place cells, a type of neuron that helps animals with spatial navigation. “Probably against his better judgment, he let me work in his lab,” she says with a laugh.

She gradually assumed more responsibility within the lab—and her career began. 

“I just really fell in love with the questions and the ideas,” she says. “That was the first place I was exposed to people who were thinking about linking the activity of neurons to behavior.”

Following graduate work at Stanford University and postdoctoral research at Harvard, Cohen came to Pitt in 2011.  In her lab, researchers study how the brain encodes visual information and uses it to guide decisions and actions. 

For Cohen, the McKnight Award supports research to test the hypothesis that the mechanisms underlying attention involve interactions between cortical areas. The current assumption is that reactionary decisions work by pooling information from neurons across many different brain areas. Cohen hopes to create “a snapshot” of all the visual information that’s available at one moment in time.

“Our hope is that by studying attention, we’re actually going to learn something much more general about how neurons interact,” she says. “Nearly every normal behavioral process— and disorder of the nervous system—is thought to involve the coordinated activity of a large number of neurons. Our hope is that our work will help us understand the computations that are performed by groups of neurons and how they give rise to perception, cognition, and behavior.”