James Schummers, Ph.D., has joined the Max Planck Florida Institute as a Research Group Leader in the Cortical Circuits Group. He will study the functional organization of the circuits, or pathways, in the cerebral cortex – the brain structure that is responsible for many complex human behaviors, including language and cognition. He is particularly interested in determining the involvement of astrocytes, the major non-neuronal cell in the brain, in the operation and structure of the cortex.
Dr. Schummers received a Ph.D. in systems neuroscience from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with the support of a Howard Hughes Pre-Doctoral Fellowship. His postdoctoral work, also done at MIT, yielded some surprising findings involving astrocytes. Scientists have known about astrocytes, also known as glia, for about a century but had assumed their role was to hold neurons in place – performing no independent function. However, Dr. Schummers’ research indicated that when presented with a visual stimulus, activity in astrocytes is just as specific as that of neurons, making their role in cell activity much more than that of mere “neuron glue.”
“Having come from Boston, a city that is such a center for scientific research in the U.S., I was excited by the prospect of watching, and being part of, another bioscience center starting from the ground up here in Florida,” said Dr. Schummers.
Personally, the Baltimore native says he has been hooked on neuroscience ever since he took his first undergraduate class at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. After earning his bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from Oberlin, Dr. Schummers moved to Denver, Colo., where he studied the effects of alcohol on long-term potentiation (LTP) in the hippocampus at the University of Colorado Health Science Center.
By creating an ‘informational map’ of an extremely important part of the brain, Dr. Schummers’ research program at the Max Planck Florida Institute can help to lay the foundation for a number of medical advances, including interventions that can help those suffering from retinal blindness. Also, a deeper understanding of the normal functions of cortical circuits can help to improve diagnostics of and treatment strategies for a broad array of disorders, including epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and autism spectrum disorders.
Max Planck Florida Institute broke ground on their new 100,000-square-foot biomedical facility in June. The permanent biomedical research center and laboratories is expected to be completed by early 2012. For more information, visit www.maxplanckflorida.org.