Neuro Research

Neuroscience by the Beach


by Anna Davison


Senior Writer
College of Engineering
University of California Santa Barbara


The University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) may not have a medical school, but researchers at the university are nonetheless making important contributions to our understanding of the nervous system and how it can go awry.


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Researchers’ insights are aiding the search for better treatments—perhaps even cures—for debilitating disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, autism and macular degeneration.


UCSB’s interdisciplinary ethos encourages diverse disciplines, so insights from neuroscientists, psychologists, bioengineers, systems biologists, chemists and others are brought to bear on important problems in neuroscience.


UCSB scientists are using advanced tools like genomic analyses, nanoscale imaging techniques and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI ) to investigate the structure and function of the brain and other components of the nervous system, and to explore the neural basis of behavior.


The work is being done across a number of UCSB departments—psychology, chemistry, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and molecular, cellular and developmental biology—and in various interdisciplinary centers, among them the Neuroscience Research Institute, the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, the Center for the Study of Macular Degeneration, the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies and the Sage Center for the Study of the Mind.


Pierre Wiltzius, UCSB’s dean of science, says the neuroscience research now underway represents some of the most exciting work being done at the university. The focus on understanding the development and normal functioning of the nervous system—how we learn, how we encode memories and how we perceive the world—is a valuable perspective, Wiltzius says, because “it’s difficult for clinicians to step back and think about understanding a healthy person.”


Specific Project Areas

Researchers at UCSB are studying how stem cells differentiate into the exquisitely specialized components of the nervous system. They’re particularly interested in the visual system, and the university is the site of a research program on age-related macular degeneration, which focuses on understanding the cellular, molecular and genetic factors that contribute to the disease, and developing diagnostic and therapeutic tools to tackle it.


Neuroscientists at UCSB are looking at how Alzheimer’s disease ravages the brain—in particular, at the amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of the disease—and how its progression might be slowed, stopped or perhaps even reversed.


Another brain disorder being investigated is autism, and UCSB scientists are studying the complex genetic underpinnings of the condition.


Using tools such as fMRI and electroencephalography, UCSB researchers are investigating individual differences in cognition and performance, such as attention and decisionmaking, in relation to brain structure and function. Scientists at the university are also studying how the brain deals with complex information and how it functions in virtual environments—work that puts UCSB at the leading edge of neuroscience research.


Future issues of NEUROtransmitter will cover some of the neuroscience research areas at UCSB in greater depth.


MUCSB Neuroscience Research Institute
UCSB Brain Imaging Center
UCSB Department of Psychology



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