When Eve Marder began her research on the lobster stomatagastric-ganglion (STG) system four decades ago, she had no idea that it would be the neural circuit that would define her career. Today, however, no scientist is more strongly associated with that small 30-neuron example of a central-pattern generator, a neural circuit that produces automatic rhythmic outputs of behavior, like digestion and breathing. As a result of her pioneering research on the STG, Marder has transformed and deepened our knowledge about how all neural circuits, including those in the human brain, produce behavior. Such research is also helping scientists better understand what goes awry in those circuits to cause neurobiological disorders and disease, such as schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chronic pain.
Marder’s introduction to the STG occurred in the early 1970s while she was in graduate school at the University of California, San Diego. At that time, most scientists believed that the connections in neural circuits were “hard-wired” to produce a single pattern of output, or behavior. Using the STG, Marder showed that neural circuits were actually quite plastic and able to change both their parameters and function in direct response to various endogenous chemicals in the brain, or neuromodulators. This marked a paradigm shift in how scientists viewed the architecture and function of all neural circuits.
Since 1978, Marder has been conducting her research at Brandeis University, her undergraduate alma mater. There, in addition to her work on neural networks, she has helped pioneer the expansion of theoretical neuroscience and co-developed a major experimental tool known as the dynamic clamp. It allows scientists to introduce computational and mathematical modeled synaptic or other conductances into biological neurons, and is now used in laboratories around the world.
More recently, Marder has been investigating how neural circuits maintain stability, or homeostasis, over long periods of time despite constant neuromodulation and reconfiguration. This research promises to lead to a better understanding of what happens when the circuits go awry and cause neurological disease, such as schizophrenia, depression, and epilepsy. Outside of the laboratory, Marder remains active, as she has throughout her career, in efforts to improve and expand neuroscience education and research. She currently serves on the National Institutes of Health working group for President Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Technologies) initiative.