Meet Tianyi Mao: Looking at brain circuits in a new light

The Brain Research Awareness and Information Network (BRAINet) is the volunteer outreach organization of the OHSU Brain Institute. Each month, they come together for a lecture luncheon. Tianyi Mao, Ph.D. was a recent guest speaker.

Our brains are the most sophisticated computing machines on the planet. They are amazingly plastic, yet macroscopically their structures are conserved across individuals within a species.

Information, both internal and external, is processed by such stereotypical brain circuits. It flows from one sub-region in the brain to specific targets.

The same way that knowing a circuit diagram for a microchip informs us about how it works, understanding the sequence of information flow in the brain is an essential step towards understanding brain function in both normal and disease conditions.

We use this rationale to try to understand the circuits of the basal ganglia, which are a collection of brain structures critical for movement control and decision-making.

Dysfunction of the basal ganglia contributes to the physical side effects of many neurodegenerative diseases, most notably Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. Alterations in basal ganglia circuits also are associated with behavioral perturbations in drug addiction and neurodegenerative diseases.

Our current understanding of the basal ganglion has been limited by the complexity of this circuitry.

In my laboratory, we examine the information flow within basal ganglia and its interaction and coordination with other key brain areas essential of  movement control and drug addiction.

My team seeks to understand how the brain is wired and what happens after a specific circuit in the brain is inactivated. Through the use of innovative tools including large scale brain imaging, calcium imaging, genetics and optogenetics, we are essentially trying to reverse-engineer the brain to help us understand how it works.

One goal of our research program is to investigate how the circuitry changes during different behaviors (e.g. directed vs. habitual), and in animal models of addiction, which have been crucial in understanding the biological and physical manifestations of drug addiction and substance abuse

Our projects that use different tools to investigate different aspects of the basal ganglia circuitry are expected to be synergistic. With complementary approaches, we hope to better understand the cell-type-specific circuitry, a prerequisite for a thorough understanding of basal ganglia function in health and disease.

This video is a 3D tracing of neuronal connectivity using viral-mediated fluorescent protein expression. It allows us to follow the potential information flow from one macro region in the brain to its next target. To view more brain images, visit our data collection website. 



Tianyi Mao, Ph.D. is an Assistant Scientist and Principal Investigator for the Mao lab at the Vollum Institute




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