"It's a great honor," said Marder, an internationally known neuroscientist whose work over the last three decades has helped shape and advance the field through research into neural networks in lobsters and crabs and the application of computational methods to elucidate the function of neural circuits.
In the early days of neuroscience, researchers searched the animal kingdom for sea slugs, crayfish and other model organisms with which to study specific problems in neuroscience. While those days are over, Marder believes that non-mammalian organisms, from worms to birds, are still catalyzing discovery in neuroscience. Her own work with crustaceans is ample proof of that.
Marder researches central pattern generators (CPGs), groups of neurons found in vertebrate and invertebrate nervous systems responsible for producing specific rhythmic behaviors, such as walking, swimming and breathing. The CPGs in the stomatogastric ganglion (STG) of lobsters and crabs are ideal for research because relatively few neurons are involved, their circuit output is easy to measure and even when the STG is removed from the animal, rhythmic behavior continues.
Her work at Brandeis has led to several milestones in neuroscience. Early on, Marder's research revealed that neural circuits are not hardwired and that neuromodulators can "tune" or change the output of circuits. Further, Marder discovered that a given neural circuit can be modified by a host of different amines and neuropeptides. This eventually led to current research on the complex role of stability, or homeostasis, in neural circuits.
The question driving Marder now is how neuronal circuits maintain stability over the lifespan, essentially maintaining form and function, while in the short term rebuilding and renewing themselves.
"How homeostasis and circuit stability is achieved is a mystery," said Marder. "We have no answers yet, but we have been able to crisply pose some questions."
Marder's and others' ability to answer some of these questions about homeostasis may well have broad implications for understanding disease. Mental illness, epilepsy and chronic pain are just some of the conditions caused by neural circuitry gone awry.