How Does the Brain Take Shape?


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Fluorescent microscope photo of mouse cortical nerve cells (neurons) in culture infected with lentiviruses that express green fluorescent protein


we use our brain to shape the world around us; but first, the basic design of our interior world must unfold in our developing brain. What genetic and neural mechanisms give rise to our personality? Which fine tune our sexual behavior? What code programs a mother’s love or our reaction to stress? Personality already begins to develop in the embryonic brain, though the process continues well after birth. Scientists in the Institute’s Faculty of Biology are investigating various mechanisms that shape our personalities, both in the growing brain and in the genes and nerve networks of the adult brain.

Dr. Alon Chen studies the genetic roots of such phenomena as stress and anxiety. He has found, for instance, that the presence of certain proteins determines an animal’s response to emotional or physiological stress. Other research in Chen’s lab reveals a genetic connection between emotional stress and such disorders as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Dr. Gil Levkowitz uses the transparent zebrafish to observe the formation of the hypothalamus – a brain region that regulates, among other things, metabolism, emotional and physical stress, and social behavior. Combining fluorescent imaging with genetic techniques, he follows developing nerve circuits and traces genetic factors that affect physiological function.

Dr. Tali Kimchi is curious about the differences between the male and female brain – as well as the mechanisms for the mutual attraction between them. She has demonstrated how to turn a mothering, feminine mouse into a macho “Casanova” by flipping just one genetic switch. In her lab, which resembles the set of the television show Big Brother, cameras and microphones tape the lives of genetically altered lab mice day and night. Here, the scene reveals how the brain controls such activities as sex recognition, competition for mates and raising pups.

Drs. Gil Levkowitz, Tali Kimchi and Alon Chen


Dr. Alon Chen’s research is supported by the Nella and Leon Benoziyo Center for Neurosciences; the Nella and Leon Benoziyo Center for Neurological Diseases; the Carl and Micaela Einhorn-Dominic Brain Research Institute; the Irwin Green Alzheimer’s Research Fund; Gerhard and Hannah Bacharach, Fort Lee, NJ; Mark Besen and the Pratt Foundation, Australia; and Roberto and Renata Ruhman, Brazil. Dr. Chen is the incumbent of the Philip Harris and Gerald Ronson Career Development Chair.

Dr. Tali Kimchi’s research is supported by the Carl and Micaela Einhorn-Dominic Brain Research Institute; Rina Mayer, Israel; and Esther Smidof, Switzerland.

Dr. Gil Levkowitz’s research is supported by the Dekker Foundation; the Minna James Heineman Stiftung; the Women’s Health Research Center funded by the Bennett-Pritzker Endowment Fund, the Marvelle Koffler Program for Breast Cancer Research, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Women’s Health Research Endowment, and the Oprah Winfrey Biomedical Research Fund. Dr. Levkowitz is the incumbent of the Tauro Career Development Chair in Biomedical Research.