International Research Teams Selected to Study How Neural Systems Respond to Changing Environments

by The Kavli Foundation

Neurobiology and Changing Ecosystems Kavli Exploration Awards

The Author

Seven international researchers are recipients of the Neurobiology and Changing Ecosystems Kavli Exploration Awards. Three different projects will pursue novel investigations into how nervous systems may enable organisms, such as crustaceans, cephalopods, and zebrafish, to adapt to environmental challenges, including warming oceans, extreme weather events such as heatwaves, and other environmental perturbations that may have influences on neurophysiology and behavior.

“With these awards, we are catalyzing the exploration of cellular, molecular, and circuit-level mechanisms that govern how nervous systems respond to the accelerated pace of change in our world,” remarked Amy Bernard, director of Life Sciences at The Kavli Foundation. “These ambitious research projects reflect new approaches to explore how the brain functions and provide a new lens through which to elucidate the mechanisms underlying neural resilience and adaptation.”

Neurobiology and Changing Ecosystem Kavli Exploration Award Recipients

A life-cycle perspective on mechanisms of neural resilience (award period: 2023-2025)

The warming ocean and extreme weather events like heatwaves put marine animals at risk, including decapod crustaceans, which are crucial for coastal ecosystems. These creatures undergo complex life cycles, and their nervous systems are vital for functions like heartbeat and sensing their surroundings. Wolfgang Stein at Illinois State University and Steffen Harzsch at University of Greifswald aim to understand how different species of crustaceans adapt and respond to changing temperatures throughout their lives, from larval development to adulthood. The researchers will study both local and invasive species as well as intertidal and deep ocean species to discover what features of neural systems confer resilience to temperature fluctuations and how their nervous systems cope with climate change-induced challenges. 

The effects of hypoxia on neural RNA editing (award period: 2023-2027)

Cephalopods like squid, octopus, and cuttlefish have the largest brains among invertebrates and demonstrate extremely high intelligence and behavioral complexity. Researcher Joshua Rosenthal at the Marine Biological Laboratory, along with collaborators Eli Eisenberg at Tel Aviv University, Emma Hammarlund at Lund University and Matthew Birk at St. Francis University, are studying how these creatures adapt to environmental changes. In previous work, they discovered that cephalopods use a genetic process to modify neural proteins, called RNA editing, which helps them rapidly adjust to different conditions such as environmental temperature changes. Now, these investigators will explore the role of this process with other environmental perturbations that may impact cephalopod neurophysiology and behavior. This global group of investigators will explore how RNA editing is involved in cephalopods’ ability to tolerate low oxygen levels, which occurs frequently in nearshore waters because of agricultural and effluent wastes. Understanding neural adaptability to oxygen levels is a crucial factor for cephalopod survival in the face of aquatic pollution and may shed light on other ways that oxygen levels and brain function are linked.   

Mechanisms of brain resilience and adaptation to heat (award period: 2024-2028)

As climate change leads to more frequent and severe heatwaves, humans and animals must cope with heat stress. Florence Kermen at University of Copenhagen aims to analyze the brain’s molecular, cellular, and circuit-level mechanisms for resilience to heat stress in zebrafish, a cold-blooded animal whose body temperature closely tracks that of the environment. Kermen and her team will examine how specific cells in the brain, neurons, and astrocytes, respond to heat - and then test whether changing astrocyte activity affects the fish’s ability to handle heat. The study will also characterize molecular changes in the brain that allow organisms to adapt to higher temperatures, which is crucial for many species in a warming world. These findings will have broad implications for how climate change affects behavior and adaptability in cold-blooded animals, particularly teleosts like zebrafish.

Neurobiology and Changing Ecosystems

The Kavli Foundation launched support for exploration in the emerging field of neurobiology and changing ecosystems in 2022. In August 2023, the foundation announced a multi-year initiative to catalyze research investigation into how neural processes – including molecular, cellular, and circuit-level mechanisms – are impacted by or resilient to changing environments. The foundation is also proud to partner with the Grass Foundation to support Kavli-Grass Fellows, early-career scientists who spend 14 weeks at the Marine Biological Laboratory pursuing independent research projects in this field. Recipients of Kavli Exploration Awards in Neurobiology and Changing Ecosystems were announced at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting on November 11, 2023.