Science projects of Peter Dong, neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.
My work on sensory neuroscience began during my undergraduate education and led to my Ph.D. in neuroscience at Penn.
As a graduate student in the lab of Wenqin Luo at the University of Pennsylvania, I studied the mechanisms underlying somatosensation. The main questions we ask in the lab include how touch and pain information is encoded by neurons, how these neurons are organized into circuits, and how these circuits influence behavior.
A main portion of my research focused on the function and properties of a population of neurons that are specifically tuned to detect light touch and vibration. To learn more about these neurons, we used transgenic mice that allow us to visualize this population of neurons unambiguously, as well as express a light-sensitive channel called channelrhodopsin in these neurons so we can activate them using light in awake and behaving animals. This research is ongoing, and by combining behavioral experiments with histology and physiology, we hope to better understand how touch sensitive neurons function in both normal and pathological conditions.
I was also involved with the lab’s efforts to characterize the multitude of touch, pain, and itch neuron subpopulations within the somatosensory system. Through the expression of channelrhodopsin in various transgenic mouse lines and subsequently performing behavioral assays using both natural and light stimuli, we can determine the contribution of different populations of somatosensory neurons to touch, pain, and itch behavior. Such experiments will give us a better sense of particular genes or molecules to target in the case of disease states such as chronic pain or itch.
Previously, I also investigated the role of an ion channel in somatosensation. To characterize this channel, I utilized a wide range of techniques spanning histology, live cell imaging, and behavior. In particular, I pioneered both calcium imaging and pain / itch behavioral assays as the first student to perform these experiments in the lab.
While I was an undergraduate student at Duke University, I conducted research on olfaction, or the sense of smell, in the lab of Hiro Matsunami. Over a period of two years in the lab, I worked on two projects—the first examining how odorant receptors (proteins that detect odors) function when expressed in a human cell line, and the second examining how neurons that detect odors might grow differently based on odor exposure during early development in mice.