Fish brains yield clues about learning, behavior

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Marc Wolman says he feels like “a kid in a candy store”— if the candy were zebrafish brains, and the kid was an assistant professor of zoology, and the store was UW-Madison’s neuroscience community. Wolman (B.S.’02, Zoology; Ph.D.’07, Neuroscience) returns to Madison after a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, eager to delve into early brain development and thrilled to join a group of researchers whose work spans “the full gamut” of neuroscience.

Actually, Wolman’s lab looks less like a candy store than the aquatic section of a pet store. He studies the embryos of zebrafish for insights into the human brain. We caught up with Wolman to ask him why he chose zebrafish embryos, how he feels about returning to Madison, and more.

Wolman Wolman

Q: Tell us about your work and research interests.
A: I’m interested in how the brain controls behavior. Which genes are behaviorally relevant? I study a type of learning called habituation, which is the “simplest” form of learning and is performed by all animals. By identifying the genes required for the brain to regulate habituation, I hope to provide insight into the genetic basis of cognitive disorders marked by habituation deficits, such as schizophrenia, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Q: Why zebrafish embryos?
A: Zebrafish actually have a similar genetic makeup to humans and an analogous, yet simpler brain. Just days after birth, zebrafish larvae perform a remarkable set of behaviors — they even learn! To determine how, I created random mutations in the zebrafish genome and then identified those mutants that fail to learn.

Q: And what do you hope to learn?
A: The goal is to identify the mutated genes that disrupt learning and then resolve how and where in the brain these genes function. The beauty of this approach is that it is “unbiased”– meaning, there’s little to no preconception about the genes I will discover. Already, I have identified a gene that has never before been studied in the context of brain function and our findings have revealed novel insight into how the brain controls behavior like learning.

Q: How did you become interested in this field?
A: As a graduate student, I became interested in identifying the genes responsible for establishing a functional brain and linking neurodevelopmental defects with cognitive impairment. In my work thus far, I have already selected for genes necessary for the brain to properly function. Now, do these genes regulate the assembly of the nervous system and/or how components of the nervous system communicate to control behavior? Our experiments will provide the answers, so stay tuned!

Q: Why are you excited about being back at UW-Madison?
A: I am a proud alumnus, and am honored and privileged to return as a faculty member and join the neuroscience community at UW-Madison. As a field, neuroscience has great breadth – ranging from molecules to cognitive behavior — and UW-Madison has depth spanning the full gamut of neuroscience.

Q: What courses will you teach?
A: Zoology 151/152.

Q: What can students expect from you in the classroom?
A: Enthusiasm — I care about biology and want you to care, too. And I hope a relatively stress free experience. It’s difficult to learn if you are stressed.

Q: How do you unwind?
A: Quite simply, I go outside. My wife and I spend a lot of our time cycling and love to head “up north” to fish.

Q: Do you have an aquarium at home?
A: No, no, no. I think I have enough fish in the lab!

To meet more new faculty members, see our full list of Q&As.