The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation awarded its 2015 Freedman Prize for Exceptional Basic Research to Michael M. Halassa, MD, PhD, assistant professor at the New York University Neuroscience Institute with appointments in Neuroscience and Physiology, Psychiatry and the Center for Neural Science.Halassa is being honored for his work examining the regulation of sensory information in the brain, which has possible implications for treating disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), all of which involve disruptions to the flow of sensory information both to and within the brain.

Halassa and colleagues investigated the role of the thalamus—believed to be a gatekeeper in the relay of sensory information to the brain’s cortex for fine-tuned processing. Researchers believe that sensory attention may be directed by the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN), a group of neurons that inhibit communication within the brain and can therefore increase attention toward sensory input by reducing their own inhibitory activity.

To understand TRN activity, Halassa’s team recorded TRN neuron firing in mice during sleep as well as a visual attention task. They found that TRN neurons that communicated with visual processing regions of the brain reduced their activity during the visual task, but increased their activity during sleep. The team also found uniquely decreased activity during sleep among TRN neurons that help promote memory consolidation and neutral activity levels for these same neurons during the visual attention task. These findings indicate that TRN neurons help regulate the flow of attention in task-specific ways. Disruptions to the activity of TRN neurons may contribute to disorders where the flow of attention is not properly regulated.

“The NARSAD Young Investigator Award came at a critical time in my career and allowed me to take risks that have continued to generate tremendous returns,” says Halassa in a release. “Rather than going after the ‘next obvious question,’ I was able to develop the necessary tools for asking how thalamic inhibition fundamentally worked. These tools are now revealing how thalamic inhibitory circuits can go awry in neurodevelopmental disorders and how targeting thalamic circuits can provide unique therapeutic benefits.”