These researchers are representative of all the Yerkes researchers who are making life-changing discoveries:
Beth Buffalo, PhD, knew the infrastructure of Yerkes, national primate research center located on the campus of a research university, would help her more quickly transform discoveries in the lab to critical interventions and treatments for patients with diseases that will not wait. With a faculty appointment in neurology in addition to her research at Yerkes, Buffalo has access to clinicians who help translate her research, which focuses mainly on gaining an understanding of the neural mechanisms that support learning and memory, to patients. She and her colleagues are developing a Web-based eye-tracking system to help identify the disease in its initial stages. Once perfected, such early detection tools can help physicians intervene in time to reduce memory loss and prevent its progression.
A prime example of research synergy that has helped advance Parkinson’s disease research involves Yerkes neuropharmacologist Leonard Howell’s studies of the role of dopamine in cocaine addiction and neurologist Yoland Smith’s work in Parkinson disease. Dopamine acts as a messenger to control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. Howell has used Positron Emissions Tomography (PET) imaging to trace the action of dopamine in the cocaine-addicted brain and has developed medications that prevent the drug from triggering a reward response. Now researchers like Smith are using the same imaging technology in primate studies to examine the connection between dopamine and the movement disorders found in Parkinson’s disease. “There is a real overlap in the research, and imaging is an ideal tool for both programs,” says Howell. (Dr. Howell is pictured below.)
Yerkes psychobiologist Mark Wilson, PhD, knows social experiences, social stressors, and strong social networks influence behavior and health. Yerkes geneticist Zach Johnson, PhD, knows genes also influence these things. Together the men are working to study the influence of stress and social factors on appetite and food preference and the effects of diet choices on biology and health. By better understanding these issues, Wilson and Johnson hope to identify the physical triggers that drive people to overeat and become obese. (In the photo below, Dr. Wilson is on the left, and Dr. Johnson is on the right.)
Larry Young, PhD, is deciphering the chemical triggers and pathways in the brain that drive humans to form relationships. Young works to understand the neurobiology of socialization from a basic science perspective by studying prairie voles. By comparing prairie voles with meadow voles—which are almost identical genetically but do not crave social contact or form strong social bonds —Young’s laboratory is mapping the genetic and neurobiological mechanisms underlying complex social behaviors. This research could lead to a better understanding of biology’s role in social cognitive disorders such as autism and psychological disorders such as schizophrenia and depression, which are associated with severe social impairments.
Vaccines have been created for most of the diseases considered “low-hanging fruit” — smallpox, measles, mumps, and immunologist Bali Pulendran says researchers have faced incredibly difficult problems in the last 25 years with complicated diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. “We are advancing the idea of figuring out the secret of successful vaccines. If we figure out how they work at a mechanistic level, we can use that mechanism to advance the formulation of vaccines for HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases,” says Pulendran. Pulendran is determined to figure out how and why vaccines work, a key puzzle in improving the creation and efficacy of vaccines that could eradicate some of the greatest health threats of the modern age.
Mollie Bloomsmith’s job at Yerkes is to make sure all of the center’s animals are well cared for. As director of behavioral management in the Division of Animal Resources, she oversees daily programs to improve the psychological well-being of primates involved in research at Yerkes. “This is a fun and satisfying approach to taking care of primates. The low-stress, partnering, and positive reinforcement method of training complements the research process, giving more reliable results and a new way of handling primates that leads to happier animals and researchers,” she says. “Yerkes is one of the leading centers in using this type of training and in doing research to evaluate the results and benefits. We are doing the very best we can for our animals and we are always improving. We are privileged to get to work with primates, as very few get to do this,” says Bloomsmith.
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