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The Levinson Emerging Scholars Program

Cara Comfort - Bioengineering, Neurobiology

Cara Comfort Cara Comfort is a senior double majoring in Bioengineering and Neurobiology. Since her first year at UW, she has been actively immersed in research. As she was interested to find a way to integrate her two majors, she joined Bill Moody’s cortical development lab the summer after her sophomore year. There she enjoys the combination of creative stimulation inherent in experimental design as well as the mathematical challenges demanded by MatLab and scientific analysis. Through her senior capstone project, Cara plans to synthesize the skills developed in both her majors to help elucidate the complex mechanisms behind cortical development, an area she has grown very passionate about. After graduating UW, she intends to pursue a Ph.D. in neural engineering, preferably continuing her research in the field of neurodevelopment. Cara is extremely grateful for the support by Dr. and Mrs. Arthur D. Levinson on her current interdisciplinary research project.

Mentor: William Moody, Biology

Project Title: A computational model of GABAergic cells to elucidate initiation of SSA in developing mouse cortex

Abstract: It is poorly understood how cortical connections are established in the brain during development. In the past decade, it was established that waves of synchronous spontaneous activity (SSA) are essential for developing the proper circuitry in the neonatal mouse cortex. These waves of electrical activity, involving a vast number of neurons firing bursts of action potentials simultaneously, produce transient increases in intracellular calcium concentration, which can be imaged with calcium-sensitive fluorescent dyes. The Moody lab recently determined that during early developmental stages, waves of SSA originate from the ventral piriform cortex and are dependent on GABAergic transmission. Since developmental problems may arise when these wave fail to initiate at the proper time, it is crucial to determine exactly how SSA is initiated. My research project aims to 1) identity the exact subpopulation of GABAergic cells that generate SSA and 2) determine what combination of intrinsic physiological properties and synaptic connectivity defines the pacemaker population. In particular, I will estimate key system and cellular parameters that define GABAergic networks using past experimental data. Then, I will build a computational model of GABA pacemaker cells in MATLAB that simulates wave initiation and propagation, implementing the previously estimated parameters in the model. By matching the simulated wave propagation frequency and speed to those determined by experimental data, I will gain insight into the parameter spaces of cell connectivity and integration time, which are difficult to estimate given the current data. Finally, I will attempt to validate the model by first estimating more realistic values of these parameters via patch clamp experiments, and then comparing these obtained values to the parameter spaces calculated by the model.