$1.5 million to study language development, via bats

Egyptian Rousette Bats in flight.

Egyptian rousette bats in flight (Photo courtesy of Michael Yartsev)

The New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF) has awarded Michael Yartsev, assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, a 2016 NYSCF–Robertson Neuroscience Investigator award. The award provides Yartsev with a $1.5 million grant to study the neurobiological basis of language learning in the mammalian brain using an unusual model system: the bat.

Michael Yartsev

Michael Yartsev, assistant professor in the Department of Bioengineering and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

Scientists know very little about the neurobiological mechanisms of language learning in mammals. The reason is that very few species of mammals have language learning abilities. Those species are cetaceans (such as whales), elephants, bats and humans. While whales and elephants are too large to study in a lab, bats are not, so Yartsev’s lab, dubbed the NeuroBat lab, is developing and employing novel technologies to address the core question of what is it about our brains that allows us to learn language. These novel methods include wireless neural recording, optogenetics, imaging and anatomical mapping. The Robertson Neuroscience Investigator award fosters and encourages promising early career scientists whose cutting-edge research holds the potential to accelerate treatments and cures for disease.

“Language development disorders are a major problem in human societies,” Yartsev said. “We can really impact the welfare of children, and society in general, by deciphering the underlying neural mechanisms of these disorders. Cracking this complex problem can assist children and adults worldwide since, after all, language is a crucial part of the life of humans across all societies.”

The award provides critical seed funding — $1.5 million over five years — to outstanding young scientists as they move beyond their postdoctoral training to establish their own, independent laboratories. Yartsev won one of six such awards nationwide. 

“These six outstanding researchers focus on the most promising, translational research, and we are pleased to welcome them into our global NYSCF Innovator community,” said Susan L. Solomon, CEO and co-founder of the foundation. “Enabling their important research as they move into the next phase of their careers is a key priority of our mission, and their work will unquestionably accelerate progress towards cures for the entire field.”

Read more at the NYSCF website.