We are delighted to congratulate Dr Marta Zlatic who has been awarded the Eric Kandel Young Neuroscientist Prize 2017.
The prize, established in 2009, is awarded to “a European neuroscientist under the age of 40, who has demonstrated outstanding and independent scientific creativity and productivity”. The prize is awarded in association with the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) and is announced today to coincide with the first day of Brain Awareness Week.
Marta was appointed to a lectureship in the department in 2015 but is currently working at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute on the Janelia research campus. Marta has a long and illustrious connection with the department. Indeed she credits a lecture given by Professor Michael Bate on the development of neural circuits in Drosophila in her final year as a Natural Sciences undergraduate student as the spark that would ignite her passion for neuroscience.
She went on to do a PhD with Michael Bate entitled: “Establishment of connectivity in the embryonic central nervous system of Drosophila”. She won the ZSL’s Thomas Henry Huxley Award for the best PhD Thesis in the UK in that year - 2004. After that she spent some of her early career as a Postdoc in the department and as a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College, where she is now a Fellow. She became a Group Leader at the HHMI Janelia Research Centre in 2009.
Her work centres on the circuit mechanisms of sequence generation, learning and decision making in the tractable model system, the larva of the fruit fly Drosophila. She asks key questions:
- How does the brain compute the bias towards each behaviour based on multiple sensory inputs present in the environment and previous experience?
- How does the brain performing a winner-take-all computation to select one behaviour based on even the slightest net bias and suppress all competing actions to enable a decisive, coordinated and unified response?
- How does the brain control transitions from one action onto the next action to produce innate or learnt sequences of actions?
- How does the brain compute the errors between the expected (predicted) outcome of the decisions and the actual outcome to drive learning and improve future decision-making?
In order to answer these questions her lab has stimulated 1,000 different neuronal pathways in 38,000 Drosophila larvae and developed high-throughput methods for observing and categorizing their behaviour. This has allowed Marta to develop a neuron-behaviour map of the larval nervous system. She then combined the behavioural maps with maps of structural and functional patterns of connections between neurons that drive different behaviours. Using this combination of approaches Marta has uncovered circuit mechanisms by which inputs from different modalities are integrated to bias behavioural choice, the circuit mechanisms by which neurons that drive mutually exclusive behaviours suppress each other and circuit mechanisms by which transitions between different behaviours are promoted and prevented during innate behavioural sequences. More recently she has been focusing on more complex decisions under conflict that involve the evaluation and integration of learnt information.
The Zlatic Lab believe that an understanding of the neural basis of these computations in animal models will have important implications in understanding how the human brain makes decisions and how such processes go awry in disease.