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WVU biology student receives NASA grant to study the brain

Kaylynn Coates, a doctoral student in the West Virginia University Department of Biology, has received a grant from the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium to study how serotonin neurons are regulated in the brain.

Kaylynn Coates headshot
Kaylynn Coates

Understanding how serotonin neurons are regulated can lead to potential clinical applications in treatments of neurological disorders like anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

“Hopefully, if we can understand how the serotonin system is working, scientists can develop better treatments that are targeted to specific serotonin neurons,” Coates said.

She will use fruit flies as a model for the human brain. The human brain contains tens of thousands of serotonin neurons, making the study of serotonin complex. Like humans, fly brains also produce serotonin. 

“We want to establish basic principles about how serotonin neurons are connected and regulated in the fly brain,” Coates said. “Once we determine these principles, other researchers can begin to apply them to mammals and other more complex organisms.”

In a previous study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Coates identified the connectivity of neurons within the olfactory system, called the “contralaterally projecting, serotonin-immunoreactive deutocerebral neurons,” or CSDns.

“We started to look at the connectivity of these serotonin neurons, and we found that they synapsed, or were talking to different olfactory neurons in the brain, and that those neurons were talking back,” Coates said. “We found that the extent of this back-and-forth communication was based on the specific types of neurons.”

Based on previous evidence of neurons that communicate with the serotonin neurons, Coates will use a reporter of neural activity called calcium imaging to establish how other neurons are regulating the activity of the CSDns.

“We have some general ideas of what serotonin is doing in the fly brain, but we don’t really understand the specific mechanisms,” Coates said. “We hope to identify which neurons are providing input to the CSDns and who the CSDns affect to elicit their effects.”

Coates works in the lab of WVU biologist Andrew Dacks, an assistant professor of neuroscience.

“Kaylynn’s work is extremely exciting because she will be able to explore how serotonin neurons are regulated at the level of individual cells and synapses,” said Andrew Dacks, Coates’ adviser. “The advantage of using fruit flies to explore the connectivity of serotonin neurons is that we have a suite of tools at our disposal that allow us to reliably record and manipulate the same neurons from one animal to the next. This allows (Coates) to circumvent issues with variability within a population of neurons to determine how one set of neurons regulates the activity of the CSDns.”