Neuroscience Program Faculty Research Descriptions
To ensure that an animal obtains an optimal amount of sleep, food, and water, the brain must sense the internal and external environment and influence behavior by producing sensations we describe as “tired/awake,” “hungry/full,” and “thirsty/quenched.” The ultimate goal of my lab is to elucidate the neural basis of these homeostatic systems. Which neural populations and neural networks in the brain play an important role in maintaining homeostasis, and how does their activity affect animal physiology and behavior? To address these questions, my lab combines mouse behavioral experiments with a variety of approaches. Neuroanatomical, electrophysiological, and calcium imaging methods demonstrate which brain regions are active during specific behavioral states. Cutting-edge optogenetic and chemogenetic methods allow us the ability to stimulate or inhibit specific neurons in the brain in a freely moving, behaving animal to test hypotheses about the role of these neurons in behavior. By taking an integrative approach and performing experiments at the behavioral, anatomical, physiological, and molecular levels of investigation, we hope to make substantial contributions to understanding these homeostatic behaviors, and ultimately how they affect the health of the entire organism.
Psychiatric disorders account for the highest total number of years lost to illness, disability, or premature death in the U.S.; yet, treatment options lag significantly behind other diseases. My research is focused on studying how interactions between genetic background and the environment alter neurophysiology and risk for exhibiting pathological behaviors. This is achieved by comparing the behavior of distinct mouse strains with unique genetic background, where some strains innately exhibit maladaptive traits and others do not. I leverage differences in strain-specific behavior to establish how neurophysiological features (and genes) are associated with adaptive vs. maladaptive traits. The ultimate goal is to identify mechanisms that underlie the symptoms associated with human psychiatric illness (i.e. depression, anxiety, schizophrenia) to stimulate the development of new therapeutic approaches.
I am a developmental psychologist with expertise in developmental neuroscience, parent-infant mental health, and behavioral pediatrics. My research focuses on the social regulation of physiological and behavioral stress responding in infants and children. Using a comparative physiology approach, my work translates animal epigenetic models of postnatal programming to human samples and demonstrates that high quality maternal caregiving behavior is associated with reduced biological and behavioral stress responding in infants and children.
I conduct basic research on caregiving behavior and infant/child stress responding and clinical research as a faculty member of the Nurture Science Program in the Department of Pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center. Students in my Early Experience and Physiology Laboratory at Williams engage in both types of research, which converge to inform intervention programming designed to reduce the behavioral and health consequences associated with early life stress.
In the Lebestky lab, we utilize the genetic model system of Drosophila melanogaster for the study of behavioral genetics and molecular neurobiology techniques to understand arousal and sensory integration. Animals use their senses to learn about their immediate environment, parse the relevant information, and react in a meaningful way. If the sensory inputs are not interpreted correctly, this can cause inappropriate reactions, such as exaggerated behavioral responses to innocuous non-threatening stimuli, or by not reacting strongly enough to real threats. These concepts also translate into human biology, as imbalances in arousal and sensory gating are linked to pathologies, such as insomnia, attentional disorders, autism, and anxiety.
My chief research interests are cardiovascular development and the molecular mechanisms underlying variations in stress reactivity, using zebrafish as a model organism. Exposure to early life stress can lead to lifelong changes in stress responses, putting individuals at greater risk of developing mood disorders. My lab investigates the molecular responses to stress in zebrafish. We are particularly interested in epigenetic regulation of genes in the stress-response pathway, focusing on fkbp5. This gene may hold promise as a target for drug development to treat the consequences of dysregulation of the stress response. Zebrafish are an excellent model in which to study the developing heart, the most common organ to suffer birth defects in humans. Heart development is influenced by cellular receptors for numerous factors, and is therefore vulnerable to the effects of environmental chemicals such as endocrine disruptors. My lab is investigating the influence of estrogen-like compounds on heart development.
My lab is primarily interested in questions related to behavioral neuropharmacology, or rather, the relationship between brain, drugs, and behavior. We use pharmacological, molecular and behavioral tools to investigate the neural basis of mood, anxiety, and substance use disorders. Most recently, our work has centered around investigating the neurodevelopmental and long-term outcomes of early-life opioid exposure. Opioid use among pregnant women is a growing public health concern in the United States. Infants exposed to opioids in utero are at high risk of exhibiting Neonatal Opioid Withdrawal Syndrome (NOWS), a combination of physical withdrawal symptoms including high pitched crying, sleeplessness, irritability, gastrointestinal distress, and in the worst cases, seizures. However, the long-term effects of NOWS are not well understood. Further, the biological effects of early life opioid exposure are difficult to separate from environmental factors, such as home conditions and parenting strategies. Using animal models, our ongoing projects seek to 1) deliver new insight into the neurobiological mechanisms underlying neonatal opioid withdrawal, 2) elucidate potential developmental and long-term neurobehavioral consequences of early life opioid exposure and withdrawal and 3) explore novel targets for pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatment and/or prevention of NOWS.
My lab is broadly interested in plasticity — the ways in which the brain changes as a result of experience. While some experiences are largely considered beneficial (e.g., learning), other experiences are not (e.g., traumatic brain injury). My lab is particularly interested in brain and behavioral changes as a result of mild traumatic brain injuries. Using several models of physical impact along with behavioral and neuroanatomical techniques to explore questions regarding how the brain responds to injury, the time-course of these changes, and the behavioral consequences. In addition, we are exploring environmental and dietary interventions that can shape these responses.
Research in the Williams lab uses behavioral methods to investigate how birds learn and use their songs, how variation in songs arises, and what that variation means. Socially learned behaviors, such as songs, are transmitted and changed in ways analogous to and yet different from genes. Males may learn from their fathers, older neighbors, or even from males of the same age, and females may prefer certain song characteristics and so influence learning. We use observation (tracking changes in song and relating them to characteristics of the singers), comparisons (contrasting the songs of different populations), experiments (exposing young birds to a variety of songs to determine which novel sounds are incorporated into the population), and modeling (collaborating with mathematicians to assess which processes best match the data) to ask how and why songs vary over time. Bird songs also have a form of syntax, as syllable sequences can “branch” and take different paths through the song. We study these variations in syllable order, and ask whether the variations have specific patterns that vary with social context, and how these patterns relate to other signals of male quality. The answers to these questions will inform our understanding of how signaling systems are organized and used.