5 questions with . . . Dr. Aaron Gruber

Dr. Aaron Gruber received his PhD in biomedical engineering from Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, writing his dissertation on computational models of working memory and its modulation by dopamine. He joined the faculty at the University of Lethbridge in 2009.

Gruber's laboratory investigates the neural basis of attention and decision making in complex environments, with a focus on how neuromodulators such as dopamine influence neural synchronization, information encoding, and learning in cortical and subcortical brain structures. One goal of this investigation is to better understand how subtle alterations of neural dynamics, such as that associated with psychiatric illness and psychoactive drugs, can lead to distractibility and poor decision-making.

Dr. Aaron Gruber
Dr. Aaron Gruber eyes readings from neural activity in a test subject.

What first piqued your interest in your research discipline?

For as long as I can remember I have wondered why people often want things that they don't need or that ultimately lead to poor outcomes. This could be a third helping of ice cream, an expensive and impractical car, or a pack of cigarettes. Where do these desires come from and why are some people better able to resist such temptation?

When I later came to appreciate that all of our thoughts and actions are a result of patterned neural activity, and that we can observe and analyze this activity, I became hooked on neuroscience. During my graduate studies, I learned about the then-recent finding that the neuromodulator dopamine is critical for imparting 'wanting' and is critically implicated in drug addiction as well as some psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia. Ever since, I have been intrigued by how dopamine affects neural signaling, and how this influences decision-making. The field of neuroscience is presently very exciting, as we are rapidly accelerating our understanding of how thoughts emerge from dynamical interactions of neurons. Such understanding will open doors to unprecedented advances for the treatment of thought disorders, developing brain-machine interfaces (thought-controlled devices), and developing intelligent algorithms and synthetic systems. I find this extremely interesting, and am excited to be a part of it.

How is your research applicable in "the real world"?

Understanding the neural basis of decision making and the contribution of dopamine will likely lead to the development of better treatments for the very serious consequences that result from dysfunction of this brain process, such as obesity, addiction and schizophrenia. Furthermore, this research will support the development of future technology for interfacing with intelligent devices.

What is the greatest honour you have received in your career?

I am most satisfied when others acknowledge that my lab's work makes an impact. For instance, this occurs when other scientists use our work to guide their experiments or interpretations. One of my greatest honours, however, was a letter from a young teenager with a mental illness who thanked me for my research, and expressed hope that such work would help lead to the development of a cure within his lifetime.

How important are students to your research endeavours?

Both undergraduate and graduate students are essential to my research in a number of ways. First, they are an integral part of data collection, which requires a great deal of technical work. Second, many good students impart a fresh perspective by questioning the foundations on which the experiments rest. Third, the process of training students helps reveal limitations in my knowledge and requires that I maintain a big-picture view of my lab's activities so that I can provide rationale for each experiment without predication on a large body of literature unfamiliar to students. Lastly, many students bring energy, interest, and inquisitiveness to the lab that helps preserve the wonder in our work and fosters learning and discovery among the entire lab.

If you had unlimited funds, which areas of research would you invest?

I would establish a technology development centre that would facilitate utilization of contemporary technology in electronics, nanotech, and materials science for performing neuroscience research. Engineers could likely increase data collection by orders of magnitude by utilizing design and fabrication technology available within large electronics companies.

Increasing the amount of simultaneously recorded data will likely be an important development for discovering how networks of neurons in the brain process information, which is one of the fundamental questions in neuroscience.

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This story first appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Legend. If you'd like to see the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.