GW Neurobiology Researcher Receives Whitehall Grant

Prestigious award will fund innovative study of auditory systems of the brain.

Guangying Wu
June 10, 2013

George Washington Assistant Professor of Psychology Guangying Wu has been awarded a grant for $225,000 from the Whitehall Foundation to study how the brain processes auditory information. The Whitehall Foundation is a nonprofit organization currently focused on funding neurobiological research for early-career scientists who have not yet received other substantial funding.

The brain’s billions of neurons work together in complex networks to form the connections that allow us to process all kinds of information from the world around us, Dr. Wu explained. That includes hearing sounds and being able to tell, with a high degree of accuracy, where the sounds are coming from. But how, exactly, the brain does this sound-locating maneuver is unclear. Dr. Wu’s study will explore how the brain’s inhibitory circuits might play a role in processing sound location information. 

“On the Metro, sometimes it’s hard to hear or understand the train operator, because there are problems within the electronic circuits,” Dr. Wu said. “The same things happen with the brain. If there are problems with the brain circuits, we might not be able to produce a clear vocalization. And those problems might also affect our understanding of language.”

GW Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said the Whitehall Foundation grant is a testament to the high caliber of Dr. Wu’s research and his training.

“This award is given to only the best young neuroscientists, and I am delighted that Dr. Wu was chosen for this honor, which he richly deserves,” he said. “I have every expectation that he will become one of the stellar faculty members at GW.”

Dr. Wu’s grant, which will last for three years and will also support a post-doctoral researcher as well as a graduate student, will fund a study to examine how neurons in the brain stem function to process auditory stimuli. Unlike past research in this area, which has examined anesthetized mice or samples of brain tissue, Dr. Wu’s study will use awake mice who will hear auditory stimulus through specially designed earphones. Implanted sensors in the auditory regions of the mice’s brains will track their brain activity as they process the sounds.

Dr. Wu will use natural auditory stimuli, which means the mice will hear recordings of their own vocalizations.

“They’ll be hearing their own talking,” he said. “Because my previous research focused on artificial stimulation, we used pure tones or noise as stimulation. But we still don’t know how [the mice] can process their own communication. That will be a big step forward in this research.”

The implications for Dr. Wu’s study extend far beyond mice. He hopes his results will shed light on how the human brain works under normal circumstances—and what happens when things go awry.

“The results of this study could help us better understand language deficits that are affected by brain disorders, including autism and Parkinson’s disease,” he said. “Aging people also sometimes have difficulty hearing sounds, locating sound sources and producing understandable speech. I hope this research helps us understand the underlying mechanisms so that we can develop new treatments and therapies.”

Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, a professor in GW’s Department of Pharmacology and Physiology, and director of the GW Institute for Neuroscience, said the Whitehall Foundation award is a reflection of Dr. Wu’s remarkable accomplishments and future promise.

“We have been fortunate to recruit several spectacular young neuroscientists to GW, and the recognition of Guangying’s work by the Whitehall Foundation is a wonderful confirmation of the superb work these gifted young scientists are pursuing in their laboratories here at GW,” Dr. LaMantia said.

Dr. Wu said neuroscience is an excellent example of how interdisciplinary research—a focus of GW’s new strategic plan—works.

“To understand auditory information processing, we combine neurobiology, biology, psychology, computation and engineering—lots of different disciplines,” he said. “We use that information to develop a model system to better understand what’s happening in the brain.”