Program Description

Goals of the Program

The Graduate Program in Neuroscience was formally established in 1981 as part of the University of Connecticut Graduate School and the Ph.D. Program in Biomedical Sciences at UConn Health. The Neuroscience Program is committed to fostering for students an interdisciplinary training environment towards understanding the normal function and disorders of the nervous system. Special emphasis is placed upon preparing students for a research and teaching career in both academic and industrial settings.

The interdepartmental nature of the Program offers comprehensive conceptual and experimental training in molecular, systems and behavioral neuroscience. The faculty of the Neuroscience Program engages in research that involves cellular, molecular, and developmental neurobiology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neurochemistry, neuroendocrinology, neuropharmacology, neuroimaging and neuropathology. Specific examples of research topics include:

  • Cellular and molecular bases of synaptic neurotransmission, including the structure and function of ligand-gated neurotransmitter receptors and voltage-sensitive ion channels
  • Genetic and epigenetic regulation of membrane biogenesis in neurons and glia
  • Electrophysiology of excitable tissue
  • Development of the autonomic nervous system
  • Development of neural tissue and of the neural crest
  • Stimulus coding, synaptic organization and development of sensory systems
  • Structure and function of auditory and gustatory systems
  • Computational neuroscience
  • Degeneration, regeneration, plasticity, and transplantation
  • fMRI research/functional mapping of normal and diseased brain
  • Neurobiology of degenerative disorders, notably Huntington’s Disease
  • Alzheimer’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, deafness and loss of hearing.

Philosophy of the Graduate Program
One focus of our Program is research, which is aimed at understanding the processes that underlie neural development, mature neuronal function, plasticity, nervous system organization, learning and memory, normal ageing, neurodegeneration, mental disorders, substance abuse, and behavioral abnormalities. Another focus is teaching and the mentoring needed to train the next generation of neuroscientists so that they can build upon, and branch out from, the current store of knowledge in neuroscience. Our methods range from molecular biology to human psychophysics. What makes our program unique is that our faculty, with their diverse interests, recognize the need to include a broad spectrum of topics in our training program. The language of a psychophysicist may seem far removed from that of a single cell PCR cloner, but both will be needed if we are to gain enough insight into nervous system function so that we can design therapeutic strategies to prevent disease progression and repair the damaged nervous system.

Recalling a Bit of History
The diversity we must encompass in Neuroscience is illustrated by recalling a few of the many important discoveries of the past few decades. Studies on the squid giant axon led to our understanding of the ionic basis of the action potential. Studies on the frog neuromuscular junction defined the process of chemical neurotransmission and the electric organ provided the molecular basis of ion channels. Biochemists used purified synaptic vesicles to identify every protein in these critical organelles, but yeast geneticists had the information needed to quickly understand the function of each protein. Patch clampers let us study individual ion channels and molecular biologists let us dissect the channels into working parts and relate genetic disorders to specific mutations in these channels. Cell biologists provided the tools that now let us watch activity-dependent alterations in neuronal morphology. Endocrinologists forced us to include steroid and thyroid hormones as important short and long term signaling molecules affecting neuronal function. Biochemical studies of second messenger systems revealed cross-talk and plasticity, factors contributing to signaling pattern complexity and perhaps underlying learning and memory. The visual system revealed the receptive field and topographical organization of sensory systems and the cortex gave us cortical barrels. Developmental neurobiologists showed us roles for multiple innervation and competition that we see as refinement of connections and plasticity in the adult CNS. The identified neuronal growth and survival factors provide hope for prevention of neuronal degeneration and controlled reinnervation.

What We Want Our Students to Learn
To appreciate and contribute to these many discoveries, from the earliest anatomical mapping to the latest gene cloning, students of the field of neuroscience need to have both a broad understanding of the historical background of the field, and what the key questions are today, where the field is going, and the key methodologies to reach the future goals. The goal of any good Neuroscience Training Program is to prepare students for the next several decades of their careers, a truly daunting task. The nervous system has laid down many hurdles for us, as if to make the task more fun and challenging: there are easily hundreds of cell types in the nervous system, more than in any other tissue; many neurons live for roughly the lifetime of the organism, again unlike most other tissues; and the functions of neurons can change dramatically over the lifespan of the organism.

Over the next few decades, a number of experimental preparations approaches will be very important, and we want our students to be ready to use these approaches and, more importantly, the as-yet-to-be-invented methods, and to have the knowledge needed to develop the next generation of approaches. With knowledge of their genomes complete, studies on C. elegans and, Drosophila will reach a new level. Bioinformatics will be a key research tool available to all who have the skills to access the information. Mice expressing transgenes of interest and engineered for tissue-specific expression or lack or expression of specific genes will be essential tools. Proper use of these mice will require a variety of experimental approaches, ranging from behavioral to biochemical to anatomical and electrophysiological. Insight gained from crystallographic studies of key proteins will allow neuroscientists to probe specific protein-protein interactions in the proper cellular context and facilitate design of pharmaceutical compounds. New disease models will take us closer to studying human pathology and non-invasive methods and well-defined test questions will allow us to study humans as test subjects. Noninvasive optical methods will allow information to be gained about population averages of neurons in a way heretofore impossible.

The critical, exciting, key experimental questions of today will merit intense discussion and investigation. For our students, the ability to identify the critical questions of the future is essential. A broad background of knowledge, and a willingness to appreciate the insights gained from many different approaches, are key to this ability. These are attitudes that students acquire, almost unknowingly, from the faculty around them. Our faculty are excited about their own work. They are also interested in the work of their colleagues. They respect the contributions that can be made by psychophysicists, X-ray crystallographers, electrophysiologists, molecular biologists and anatomists and know that progress on the big questions requires the patient cooperation of outstanding researchers with diverse areas of expertise. Probably the key ingredient here is respect for contributions that come from the different approaches and a commitment to spanning the gaps between these seemingly disparate worlds.

Admissions and Financial Support

The program seeks individuals of outstanding merit with a record of high achievement in science and a full commitment to research and teaching in the biomedical sciences. Evidence of exceptional scientific ability can be provided by outstanding performance in a rigorous basic science program at the college level or in a laboratory research project. The Neuroscience Program will consider students from any accredited college or university with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in any of the physical sciences, biological sciences or liberal arts. Persons with a degree in social sciences will be considered provided they have a sufficient concentration of courses in the sciences to prepare them for graduate work in neuroscience. A solid background in general biology is required, while mathematics (through calculus), physics, organic chemistry, and basic biochemistry are strongly recommended.

Detailed information on the application process, is available on our How to Apply page.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The deadline for the receipt of all application materials for the Ph.D. in Biomedical Science program is December 1.

If you have questions, please contact BiomedSciAdmissions@uchc.edu.

Candidates for admission are required to take the general Graduate Record Examination and to submit their scores with their application to the Neuroscience Graduate Program Admissions Committee at the above address. Foreign students are also required to take the TOEFL Examination and submit their scores, in addition to the GRE scores.

All students in the Neuroscience Program receive financial support. This support is awarded on a competitive basis, with the decision based on undergraduate course performance, past laboratory experience, GRE scores and letters of recommendation. Sources of funds for first and second year students are: UConn Health Graduate Fellowships, NIH Training Grants, and departmental funds. More advanced students are usually supported by grant funds from their advisor.

At present the financial support package includes: a) full payment of tuition and fees; b) a stipend of $28,000 for 2012-13. There are no teaching responsibilities associated with this stipend.

Curriculum

The curriculum instills a broad background in the neurosciences, with strong grounding in cell and molecular biology and systems-level neurobiology. The curriculum can be individualized to fit the diverse backgrounds and interests of students. Introductory core courses in the neurosciences cover neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, neuropharmacology, neuropathology, and developmental neurobiology. Elective courses are offered in computational neuroscience, physiology of excitable tissue, biochemistry, immunology, genetics, and cell biology, pharmacology. In the first two years, students fulfill didactic course requirements, participate in weekly journal clubs and undertake three or more laboratory rotations. The subsequent years are typically devoted to conducting dissertation research.

Laboratory Rotations
While some students may wish to use their required three laboratory rotations to obtain experience in several different areas of neuroscience, others may remain in one area for all the rotations, such as cellular/developmental or systems. Some may combine areas, such as molecular with substance abuse, or behavioral and systems physiology. There is no distribution requirement for lab rotations

Seminars
There are three major sources of seminars for our students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty mentors. The weekly Neuroscience Journal Club (Wednesday noon) has been active and well-attended for many years. The weekly Neuroscience Research Seminar series (Tuesday at 4 p.m.) is a mixture of outside speakers and local faculty. Students are directed to read and discuss a paper by the presenter – this is a discussion coordinated by the faculty. The students read the paper prior to the seminar, and a faculty sponsor leads the students in the discussion of the paper, so that they are able to understand the subject matter and think about it critically, greatly improving student appreciation of the Research Seminar. Finally, there are regular weekly seminars in at least a dozen other departments and programs, ensuring that the dynamic nature of modern biomedical research is on display every day at UConn Health.

Combined M.D./Ph.D. Program
UConn Health recently expanded its M.D./Ph.D. program. An NIH funded MSTP program began recently. The total M.D./Ph.D. population is about 24 students.

Special Features of the Neuroscience Program
Students perform three lab rotations before picking a lab for their thesis work; choice of lab rotations is done by the student with guidance from his/her Student Advisory Committee. Lab rotations are climaxed with talks and posters on a date set at the beginning of the rotation period, plus an expanded paper on the theoretical aspects of the rotation/investigation. We anticipate that most/all students will have identified the lab in which they want to conduct their dissertation by the beginning of their second year in the program.

The General (Preliminary) Exam is taken in January of the second year, and is in two parts. The first part, which probes the investigative abilities of the candidate, involves researching and then writing an outline of a proposal on the topic of the candidate’s planned research. The second part of the Exam is an oral exam based on the proposal outline, including questions from the committee on wide ranging topics in neuroscience.

The Research Prospectus (Proposal) is, in our view, the defining distinction between a graduate student aimed at a professional career in research and research leadership, compared to a highly skilled laboratory technician. The Prospectus can be written only after a faculty mentor has been selected. The Prospectus, in the form of an NIH postdoctoral application, is the time for the candidate to define clearly the background for why a set of questions are important and are ripe for answering, and then to propose how to answer those questions and evaluate the data. The Proposal must be approved by the Advisory Committee, and eventually by the Executive Committee of the Graduate Faculty Council at the UConn Storrs campus. In general this Prospectus will also be submitted to the NIH as Individual NRSA Predoctoral application, to cover the remainder of their training period. Students not funded will, of course, be covered by lab or department funds, or by a Training Grant of a GPC fellowship, as appropriate.

When they first arrive, entering students will be paired with a “Big Sib”, a student in the third or fourth year of the program, to help with anything from finding an apartment, to choosing lab rotations, locating the best pizza places, and the inside scoop on various courses.

As part of the departmental Journal Club, students are encouraged to give a yearly presentation.

There is an annual Neuroscience Retreat. This event occurs off campus and is typically a day long. The goal of the Retreat is to foster communication amongst all member of the Neuroscience community at UConn Health. Students and postdocs present posters and talks on their work. The event is financed entirely from Neuroscience Department funds, and the scientific and social programs are planned by a committee of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty.

Two of the outside speakers for the weekly Neuroscience Research Seminar series are invited and hosted by students and postdoctoral fellows, financed by the Department.

The faculty are coordinating a series of discussions for first and second year students (and older students and postdocs, if they wish to attend), where a paper by the outside Research Speaker is discussed before the actual Research Seminar, to enable younger students to have a chance to follow the seminar. Students and postdocs will also be given an opportunity to meet with visiting speakers.

There will be an annual spring meeting to assess the progress of training and the Neuroscience Program, with pizzas and sodas. This is the time for students to speak up about courses that need changing, new courses or seminars to institute, ways we can communicate better, whatever.

Overall, the training program faculty is currently mentoring a total of about 60 predoctoral students and postdoctoral fellows.

Program Courses

The descriptions for several course offerings are listed below. Additional course descriptions can be found in the graduate Course Catalog.

MEDS 5327. The Biochemical and Genetic Language (“Logics”) of Modern Biology
This course covers the fundamental biochemical and genetic principles that underlie all areas of modern biology. The biochemistry and genetics of both prokaryotes and eukaryotes are addressed. Reading and discussion of papers in the literature is an important element of the course.

MEDS 5341. Molecular Neurobiology of Excitable Membranes
Emphasizes the relationship between structure and function of biological interfaces that comprise electrically excitable and chemically excitable (synaptic) membranes.

MEDS 5371. Systems Neuroscience
This course is a part of the core series in the Neuroscience graduate program. In the earlier part, the course addresses the functional organization of the neural systems underlying sensation and movement. Sensory systems include the somatosensory, auditory, visual, vestibular, and chemosensory systems. Motor systems include the spinal cord, brain stem, cerebellum, vestibular system, oculomotor system, basal ganglia and cerebral cortex. In the later part, the course addresses complex brain systems, i.e., the autonomic systems, neuromodulator systems, and systems underlying emotion, addiction, reward, learning/memory, and speech.

MEDS 5372. Cell, Molecular ad Developmental Neuroscience
This one-semester course is organized in the form of (1) seminars, (2) paper discussions, and (3) laboratory exercises using computer simulations. The first part (Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience) provides an introduction to basic concepts in the study of neurophysiology and molecular neurobiology, such as neurotransmitter synthesis and release, electrical and calcium signaling, cellular basis of memory formation and neurological disease. The second part (Developmental Neurobiology) investigates the principles and mechanisms that guide the formation of the nervous system from stem cells to the complex multicellular arrays needed for function, including the understanding of genetic and molecular regulation of neuron/glia lineage decisions, axonal growth, synapse formation and developmental diseases. Cell, Molecular and Developmental Neuroscience is an excellent addition to the strong stem-cell research effort at the University of Connecticut, focused on cell replacement therapies for severe neurological diseases.

MEDS 5375. Neuroscience: Current Research Topics/Methods
The goal of this course is to survey fundamental neuroscience methodologies employed by Neuroscience Program faculty in their research. The course is team taught by program faculty each of whom will present the theory and practice behind a method essential to their research. Topics will include synaptic physiology, imaging, modeling, stem cell biology, animal modeling of disease and behavior, neuroanatomy, and human psychophysics. The course is targeted especially toward 1st and 2nd year students who have an interest in neuroscience or neuroimmunology.

MEDS 5377. Neurobiology of Hearing
The Neurobiology of Hearing provides an introduction to the auditory system and current research in auditory neuroscience. This field is a microcosm of neuroscience, in general, and the interdisciplinary approach embodied by Neuroscience. Students will develop a detailed understanding of the peripheral and central auditory system and the neurobiological basis of sound processing. The course is taught by a faculty drawn from UConn Health and UConn at Storrs, the University of Salamanca and its Institute for Neuroscience, Johns Hopkins Medical School, and guest lectures who in past years have come from the MRC in the United Kingdom and University of Pittsburgh. The diverse areas of expertise of the faculty guarantees that the students will be exposed to different aspects of auditory research and Neuroscience including synaptic physiology, neural circuitry, acoustics, auditory physiology, and behavior. The diversity also guarantees that the student will not be bored by a single professor. Students will be assessed on their classroom participation, papers, and critiques of papers. Students will receive grades based on four 1+ page papers in which they propose a hypothesis-driven experiment directly related to previous lectures in the course. Students also will be graded on their critique a paper by another student each week. There will be student presentations of research proposals the final week.

The Neurobiology of Hearing is part of the Neuroscience Study Abroad Program in Salamanca Spain, and it is taught in the summer in Spain. This course is for graduate students in Neuroscience and Hearing Research and upper level undergraduate students with majors in biology, neurobiology, audiology, biomedical engineering, or other premedical majors.

For more information on this course see: http://neurobiologyhearing.uchc.edu/
For more information on the study abroad program see: https://health.uconn.edu/neuroscience-abroad/

MEDS 5378. Computational Neuroscience
In this course, students will study the function of single neurons and neural systems by the use of simulations on a computer. The course will combine lectures and classroom discussions with conducting computer simulations.

MEDS 5383. Neurobiology of Disease
The intent of the course is to introduce “neurobiology of disease of the nervous system” to graduate students receiving basic neuroscience training. The course will span a breadth of diseases and disorders, emphasizing links and common themes, and addressing both the pathology (first hour; precepted by clinician or clinician/scientist) and their basic science underpinnings (second hour; precepted by basic scientist).

MEDS 5384. Mammalian Neuroanatomy
Mammalian Neuroanatomy is an advanced course where students undertake a detailed analysis of the nervous system. The course is conducted in informal, small-group sessions, and it is designed for graduate students and upper level undergraduates who are engaged in research on the CNS. The focus of the course is the brain of the rodent and its cell biology, gene expression, and microcircuitry. We will learn about the relationship between structure and function and discuss the specific cell types and organization that create the differential morphology of specific brain regions with different functions.

The rat and mouse are the most commonly used animals for neuroscience and genetic research. In the Mammalian Neuroanatomy course, we will view the rodent brain and spinal cord and discuss the cellular structure and function of major regions. Students will apply their knowledge of cell/molecular and systems neurobiology to understanding how brain function and structure differs from region to region. Students will use a variety of local and online histology and genetic databases with specialize histological preparations of rodent nervous system to demonstrate normal anatomy and gene expression or the localization of molecules. In-class activities will include the analysis of the rodent gross spinal cord and brain and a detailed investigation of rodent brains in histological sections. Students will be expected to bring a laptop computer to class. Students will receive grades for take-home exercises and a final project with a written report.

MEDS 5385. Advanced Molecular Neurobiology
Explores several different current “hot topics” in cell and molecular neuroscience and endocrinology. A major goal is to learn how to approach current research papers in rapidly developing areas. The course will include studies of lower vertebrates and invertebrates, genetic approaches, a wide variety of molecular and biochemical techniques, as well as some electrophysiology and anatomical mapping as appropriate.

MEDS 6424. Neuropharmacology
This course is intended to highlight the different neurotransmitter and neuromodulatory systems, and the pharmacological agents that affect them. Emphasis is placed on the mechanisms of drug action in the treatment of nervous and mental disease, serving to complement other courses in neuroscience, pharmacology, immunology and pharmaceutical science.

MEDS 6596. Laboratory Rotation
Laboratory Rotations are scheduled for fall, spring, and summer semesters of the first year in a laboratory of the student’s choice. See description above. Registration for this credit requires a Lab Rotation form.

MEDS 6497. Neuroscience Journal Club
Registration is required each semester for the duration of the dissertation research.

MEDS 6448/6449. Foundations of Biomedical Science I & II
Required of all Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. students at UConn Health, and strongly encouraged for all postdoctoral fellows. The course has participation of faculty from all graduate areas of concentration, plus members of the administration. Student attendance is mandatory.