Neurobiologist honored for her work on how pheromones control brain function and behavior
by Charles Jennings | February 13, 2017
The McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT announced today that Catherine Dulac of Harvard University is the winner of the 2017 Edward M. Scolnick Prize in Neuroscience. She was awarded the prize for her contributions to the understanding of how pheromones control brain function and behavior and the characterization of neuronal circuits underlying sex-specific behaviors. The Scolnick Prize is awarded annually by the McGovern Institute to recognize outstanding advances in any field of neuroscience.
Dulac is the Higgins Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University, where she served as Department Chair from 2007-2013. She is also an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She received her PhD from Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, where she studied mechanisms of neural crest development with Nicole le Douarin at the College de France. She moved to the US in 1992 as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Richard Axel at Columbia University, and joined the Harvard faculty in 1996.
Dulac is best known for her discovery of pheromone receptors and downstream brain circuits controlling sex-specific behaviors. Pheromones are volatile chemical signals that play a major role in controlling mammalian behaviors, in particular social and sexual behaviors such as aggression and reproduction. Unlike odorants, which give rise to the perception of smell, and which can be learned and flexibly associated with different stimuli, the responses to pheromones are fixed and stereotypic. Pheromone responses were known to require the vomeronasal organ (VNO), a specialized part of the olfactory epithelium within the nose, but until Dulac’s work, the molecular identity of the receptors and the neuronal circuits that underlie pheromone-evoked responses had been elusive.
In work that began while she was a postdoc, Dulac set out to identify these receptors, developing novel methods for analyzing RNA from individual sensory neurons. This pioneering work not only led her to the discovery of a large family of pheromone receptor genes, but also demonstrated the feasibility of analyzing the transcriptomes of individual neurons, an approach that is now widely used to study the brain’s extraordinary complexity.
Soon after starting her own lab at Harvard, Dulac discovered a second family of pheromone receptors. Both families are distinct from odorant receptors and are expressed in characteristic spatial patterns within the VNO. Dulac went on to study the mechanism of pheromone action, identifying the ion channel TRPC2 as an essential player in the response of VNO neurons to pheromone signaling. By genetically manipulating this signaling pathway in mice, Dulac was able to show that inputs from the VNO are necessary for gender identification and for the sex-specificity of social behaviors, including mating, aggression and parenting. She was also able to trace the connections from the VNO to the brain systems that control these behaviors, and to characterize specific neuronal populations that are necessary and sufficient for specific social behaviors. In one study, for example, she identified a population of neurons within the hypothalamus that induce parenting behaviors while suppressing aggression toward the offspring that would otherwise be triggered in males by signals from the VNO.
In another recent line of work, Dulac has studied genomic imprinting, an epigenetic phenomenon by which certain genes are differentially expressed depending on whether they were inherited from the mother or the father. Dulac’s work has revealed that imprinting of brain genes is much more common than previously realized, with important implications for basic biology and for the epidemiology of brain disorders.
Among her many honors and awards, Dulac is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, a member of the French Academy of Sciences, and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.
The McGovern Institute will award the Scolnick Prize to Dr. Dulac on Monday March 13. At 4:00pm she will deliver a lecture entitled “The Neurobiology of Social Behavior Circuits,” to be followed by a reception, at the McGovern Institute in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex, 43 Vassar Street (building 46, room 3002) in Cambridge. The event is free and open to the public.