Yale neurobiologist awarded NSF grant to study olfaction

Yale neurobiologist Justus V. Verhagen, an associate fellow at the John B. Pierce Laboratory, is one of 17 researchers nationwide to receive grants totaling $15 million from the National Science Foundation to study how the brain processes and identifies odors.

The grants, announced Sept. 21, are an outgrowth of the President’s Brain Initiative and will fund three separate multi-disciplinary research efforts. Verhagen and colleagues from five other institutions will study how animals — from flies to humans — use olfaction to find resources, such as food and mates. They hope to understand how such different creatures, with such different brains, all share this ability to odor navigate.

The researchers will use odor plume physics, neurocomputation and behavioral neuroscience to tackle this long-standing problem. Verhagen will pioneer a virtual odor navigation task coupled with optical imaging and optogenetics.

“Olfaction is both an important and tractable problem in neuroscience,” said James Olds, assistant director of the Biological Sciences Directorate. “By using the olfactory system, which is an ancient system, as a model for neural circuits, we can gain insights into the fundamental principles underlying neural activity and complex behaviors.”