Our social skills pervade most aspects our life, defining our role in the family, workplace, society and beyond. People affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) face challenges in social interaction and communication, experiencing core symptoms such as repetitive behaviors and restricted interests. The lab of Rui Costa at Columbia University explores the neurobiology of ‘self-paced’ actions- the ability to perform spontaneous actions with favorable consequences and to learn/shape our behaviors to continue to achieve this positive result. Dr. Gabriela J Martins, a postdoctoral researcher in the Costa lab, studies how self-faced actions may be impaired in ASD. She uses a combination of approaches, including Inscopix calcium imaging, to examine the striatal networks whose function is thought to underlie the repetitive behavior dsyfunction that defines ASD.
Here, Gabriela shares more about her research and interests. Thank you for taking your coffee break with us, Gabriela, we are thrilled to be supporting your work!
What do you study in the Costa lab at Columbia University?
My work focuses on the identification of the neuronal circuits underlying repetitive behaviors in mouse models of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).
What are some of the circuit neuroscience techniques you use to study the neurobiology of action?
We employ numerous techniques including imaging, optogenetics, and behavior, all combined with viral-targeting tools and transgenic mice.
What was your first “flashing neurons” moment using Inscopix technology?
Every time I see cells lighting up in real time is still pretty amazing! The very first time we had a successful surgery, it was pretty incredible – many people in the lab came to see and although we ended up bleaching the signal, it was worth it!
What exciting questions are you (and the lab) presently working on?
My colleague and fellow miniscope-user, Mafalda Vicente, and I just presented our work at SfN 2019 on the spatiotemporal dynamics of striatal circuits during repetitive behaviors in a mouse model with a 16p11.2 deletion (Del16p11.2). Recurrent 16p11.2 deletion has been identified to account for about 1% of ASD cases, and this mouse model demonstrates some of the core symptoms, including repetitive behaviors. The data is still pretty preliminary but we have been looking at methods to measure stereotyped, repetitive behaviors in more unbiased ways using inertial sensors and a novel sequence task developed by Aaron Koralek in the lab. Simultaneously, we are beginning to image striatal direct and indirect pathway projection neurons in these mice to measure the changes in striatal organization during repetitive behaviors. We’re very excited by these projects, along with others in the lab.
What is the best piece of career advice you have ever been given?
That this is a career where we actually get paid to explore things we are passionate about!
What do you enjoy doing outside of the lab?
I love photography, especially of landscapes and nature. Right now, I’ve been exploring the East Coast – there is some really beautiful scenery here! Interestingly, photography is truly something that relaxes me and has in fact helped me learn to control my shaky hands – a fact that has come in very handy with surgeries.
Thank you for reading!