Columbia University Medical Center

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NEW YORK (Jan. 6, 2009) – Steven A. Siegelbaum, Ph.D., a neuroscientist whose research is at the forefront of understanding the role of neural circuitry in learning, behavior and memory, has been named chair of the Department of Neuroscience of Columbia University’s College of Physicians & Surgeons (P&S), effective Jan. 1. Dr. Siegelbaum, a member of the P&S faculty since 1981, is professor of neuroscience and pharmacology and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He has been serving as vice chair of the Department of Neuroscience since its formation in July 2007.

“Steve Siegelbaum is superbly equipped to lead our Department of Neuroscience,” said Lee Goldman, M.D., executive vice president of Columbia University and dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. “New insights into the workings of the brain — perhaps the most mysterious organ — have the potential to lead to dramatic new understanding and treatment for diseases that savage our population, particularly our elderly, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. I am confident that under Dr. Siegelbaum’s tutelage, the faculty of this newly formed department will continue to pursue the dynamic research that will affect new understandings in neuroscience.”

“I am honored to be named chair of the Department of Neuroscience,” said Dr. Siegelbaum. “It’s been exciting to participate in the tremendous growth of neuroscience at Columbia throughout my nearly 28 years here. In fact, this growth is one of the two major reasons why we wanted to establish this department. The second reason is that within the Columbia neuroscience community there was a strong interest in neural circuitry — working to understand how behavior is generated by connections between groups of neurons. Under Tom Jessell’s leadership, we formed the Center for Neuroscience Initiatives (CNI) in 2004 and began recruiting new faculty in neural circuitry to expand our homegrown talent in this area. We felt that having a department would provide a home base for these new recruits, and a way to group people with shared interests in the field of neural circuitry, giving them a way to interact more closely.”

Dr. Siegelbaum’s research is focused on understanding how the electrical properties of individual neurons and their synapses regulate the flow of information through neural circuits during memory storage and recall. “Neural circuitry is a developing area. Columbia has been very strong in molecular neuroscience — with the work of Kandel, Axel, Jessell, and others — and with the recent emergence of new technologies in the field, we’re now able to focus on questions of how larger ensembles of neural circuits become connected to elicit behaviors,” said Dr. Siegelbaum.

His work on ion channels that are directly regulated by cyclic nucleotides led to the discovery of a novel gene family, known as “pacemaker channels,” which contribute to the ability of certain regions of the heart and brain to generate rhythmic, spontaneous electrical impulses that can control muscle activity, certain automatic functions such as breathing, and behavioral states, including arousal from sleep. He is currently researching the unique gating mechanisms of these channels.

In a separate set of experiments, Dr. Siegelbaum is using electrophysiological methods and two-photon optical imaging to research the molecular mechanisms in the hippocampus that mediate the induction and expression of synaptic plasticity — key processes thought to underlie learning and memory. His goal is to correlate changes in specific forms of plasticity with alterations in specific aspects of learning and memory.

His contributions to scientific discovery have been honored with the Herbert J. Kayden Award in biomedical science from the New York Academy of Sciences. He is a member of the Society for Neuroscience and the Biophysical Society. He serves as associate editor for the journal Neuron and is a member of the editorial boards of the Journal of Neurophysiology, the Journal of General Physiology, and Channels.

Dr. Siegelbaum received his bachelor’s degree in biochemical sciences from Harvard and his doctorate from Yale, where he studied the role of calcium in cardiac electrical activity. He completed postdoctoral research with David Colquhoun at University College, London, and with Philippe Ascher at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, studying the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor ion channel. Dr. Siegelbaum joined the Columbia P&S faculty in 1981 as assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Center for Neurobiology. He became an HHMI investigator in 1986 and was promoted to associate professor in 1988 and professor in 1992.

Dr. Siegelbaum has contributed to the growth of neuroscience at Columbia in a number of ways, including serving as a member of the Kavli Institute and the Gatsby Initiative Steering Committee and chairing the CNI Neural Circuits search committee since 2004.

Neuroscience at Columbia University Medical Center

Columbia University Medical Center has a long history of excellence in neuroscience research since the classic studies of neuronal membrane biophysics by K.C. Cole and Howard Curtis in the late 1930s, but the subdisciplines within neuroscience had little interaction. In 1974, Eric Kandel, M.D., was recruited to bring an interdisciplinary approach to basic neuroscience research at the medical center, resulting in the formation of an interdepartmental Center for Neurobiology and Behavior. The members of this group collaborated on research and created an integrated course in basic neuroscience for medical and dental students. They also established a doctorate program in neurobiology and behavior.

As neuroscience continued to grow as a discipline, Columbia added other groups that foster basic neuroscience research, including the Mahoney-Keck Center for Brain & Behavior, the Kavli Institute for Brain Science, the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, the Center for Motor Neuron Biology and Disease, the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, the Lieber Center for Schizophrenia Research, and the Center for Neuroscience Initiatives (CNI). Additionally, a new interdepartmental, university-wide graduate program in neurobiology and behavior was formed in 1996.

Collectively, these various programs and organizations now successfully implement the original function of the broad-based Center for Neurobiology and Behavior by integrating different aspects of neuroscience research across the university. As a result, in July 2007, the Center for Neurobiology was replaced by the Department of Neuroscience, whose members are focused on the development and function of neural circuits.

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