Neural and genetic foundations of individuality and personality

Carlos Pantoja receives a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant

November 06, 2017

Individual people behave differently in given situations – just as individual animals do. Carlos Pantoja from the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology aims to understand how such individual behavioral differences are embedded in an individual's brain and genetic makeup. To this end, he will observe the brain activity of zebrafish larvae while they become accustomed to an acoustic stimulus. The studied reaction is frequently altered in patients with anxiety disorders and schizophrenia. To carry out the study, Pantoja has been awarded a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant.

Those with pet animals know that it is not only humans that possess their own personalities. While some animals tend to be cautious and anxious in a given situation, others of the same species act in an open and curious manner. In humans, behaviors that are linked to psychiatric diseases are often found on the outer edges of such a behavioral spectrum. It is poorly understood how such individual behavioral differences are laid down in the wiring of the brain and how they are encoded in the genome. With the help of zebrafish larvae, Carlos Pantoja from the department of Herwig Baier at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology aims to study such connections.

Individual zebrafish larvae show differences in the so-called acoustic startle response (ASR). This innate behavior is found in many animals, including humans. When frightened by a sound, the fish bend their tail in preparation of an escape. If the event is repeated, some fish, at differing speeds, learn to ignore the sound, while other animals never become accustomed to it. This individual ASR habituation of the fish larvae exhibits similar properties to those of human and animal personality differences.

Carlos Pantoja plans to study the activity patterns and nerve cell connections in the brains of zebrafish, while they exhibit and develop their individual ASR habituation, and link them to other differences in their behavior. As alterations in the ASR have been linked to anxiety disorders and schizophrenia, the results of the study are likely to be relevant for humans.

The awardee

Carlos Pantoja studied medicine at the University of Brasilia, Brazil and gained his PhD at the University of California, San Francisco. Subsequently, he worked as a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2017, he joined the group of Herwig Baier at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology.

The NARSAD Young Investigator Grant

NARSAD research funds, awarded by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation is a high distinction for neurobiological research relating to mental health. The Young Investigator Grant supports ambitious projects of young scientists with 35,000 US Dollars a year for the duration of two years.

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