Department Welcomes New Assistant Professor

  • Feature Story

Department Welcomes New Assistant Professor

by 

Rachel Traughber | BCS Communications

New Assistant Professor Steven Flavell studies the nervous system of C. elegans.

“The fundamental mechanisms that brain cells use to communicate with each other occur over the time scale of milliseconds, yet our brains can generate behaviors that last for minutes or even hours,” says new Brain and Cognitive Sciences assistant professor Steven Flavell.  “The goal of my lab’s research is to try to understand how activity in the brain is organized over these longer time scales so that these persistent behaviors can be generated.”

Flavell and his researchers are particularly interested in behaviors like sleeping and waking and the mechanisms that allow the brain to both persist in each state or to transition from one to the other.   Studying these persistent behavioral states provides an ideal testing scenario for understanding how the brain organizes its behavior over a long period of time.

“Sleep and wakefulness are brain states that reflect the organization of neural activity over many hours,” explains Flavell. “When a brain is in a state like wakefulness or sleep, we want to know which mechanisms allow the brain to persist in that state, rather than just fluctuate from millisecond to millisecond between states.”

To study a problem with this level of complexity, he uses the nematode C. elegans.  Consisting of 959 cells, 302 of which are brain cells, the animal’s connectome, or the blueprint of its nervous system, has been mapped since the 1980s. C. elegans’ small size is an advantage: Its simple nervous system generates long lasting behavioral states in many ways resembling our own, allowing researchers to examine complex behaviors generated by a simple nervous system.

“Numerically, C. elegans is very simple,” explains Flavell. “There are around seven thousand electrical and chemical synapses between its 302 brain cells. To put that in perspective, one cell in the human hippocampus receives more synaptic connections than that by itself. And we have billions of neurons in our brains.”

While this may seem far removed from the human brain, many of the basic biological mechanisms in C. elegans are replicated in the human nervous system.

“Its genome is very similar to our genome,” says Flavell, “and it uses many of the same neurotransmitters that humans do.” These similarities have allowed researchers to study this simple animal and make transformative discoveries in many different areas of biology.

Flavell is excited about the research possibilities that come from being part of the MIT community. 

“MIT is one of the great places in the world to do neuroscience and I am thrilled to have so many new fantastic colleagues. My lab studies a system [C. elegans] that at times can be esoteric and perhaps far removed from neuroscience’s mainstream.  Working at an institution where there is tremendous mammalian neuroscience is a way for me to make sure that what we’re doing with C. elegans is specifically interesting and important for neuroscience on the larger scale.  It absolutely pushes us to do our best work,” says Flavell.

Want to learn more about the Flavell lab’s research? Check out bcs.mit.edu/flavell