The Wang lab studies the neural circuit basis of sensory perception. Wang is specifically interested in uncovering the neural circuits underlying: (1) Active touch sensation including the tactile processing stream and motor control of touch sensors on the face, (2) pain sensation including both sensory-discriminative and affective aspects of pain and (3) general anesthesia including the process of active pain-suppression. Wang uses a range of techniques to gain traction on these questions, including genetic, viral, electrophysiology, and in vivo imaging.
Mice use their whiskers to sense and explore the physical environment. Sensory information is first detected by trigeminal sensory neurons that innervate these whiskers and then processed by circuits in the brainstem, thalamus, and cortex that process information (such as the distance from or texture of an object). Whisker movement is driven by facial motor neurons, which also receive complex inputs from the brain. The Wang lab is mapping the detailed neural connectivity in this sensorimotor system using combinations of genetic and viral tools, as well as in vivo recording and functional manipulations of defined populations of neurons in this system. Through these approaches, her team is determining the roles that specific neural populations play in touch perception and touch-guided behaviors.
Pain vs No Pain
Pain perception involves two main aspects: the type of pain being felt, and the suffering and negative emotions evoked by this pain. Painful stimuli activate numerous brain regions, sometimes called the pain matrix. However, the identities of neurons and their exact roles in processing pain in each of these regions remain opaque. The Wang lab is mapping detailed connectivity of neurons linked to pain perception, recording in vivo activity using electrophysiology and imaging approaches, as well as manipulating pain-activated neurons (using activity-dependent tools) in multiple regions of the pain matrix to understand both sensory and affective pain perception, and how changes in this system contribute to the suffering associated with chronic pain.
It is well known that in humans, belief/placebo, focused attention (such as in emergency situations or in battlefield), as well as other conditions can actually block pain perception. The Wang lab is interested in dissecting the central circuits that mediate such pain-suppression. Specifically, they are studying neural mechanisms underlying anesthetics-, placebo-, and stress-induced analgesia.
Circuits of Addiction
A new direction the Wang lab is pursuing is pinpointing circuits that play a role in opioid addiction. Wang and her team have identified neurons that are either activated or suppressed by morphine. They are currently testing the hypothesis that specific groups of morphine-inhibited neurons, when re-activated, can cause animals to crave less morphine and undertake non-drug-seeking activities. Once critical brain circuits and clusters of neurons involved in morphine-addiction are identified, the Wang lab will examine their connectivity, plasticity, and changes in function when influenced by morphine. Gaining a deeper understanding of how drugs of abuse affect these circuits will help pave the way for future treatments
Wang will join the McGovern Institute as an investigator in January 2021, also arriving at MIT to join the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Wang obtained her PhD at Columbia University with Richard Axel in 1998. She conducted her postdoctoral work at Stanford University with Mark Tessier-Lavigne. Wang subsequently joined Duke University as a Professor in the Department of Neurobiology in 2003, and was later appointed the Morris N. Broad Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine.
Honors and Awards
Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Society for Neuroscience, Special Lecture, 2019
Keck Foundation Award, 2016
Brain Research Foundation Scientific Innovation Award, 2015
Elected AAAS Fellow, 2014
NIH Pioneer Award, 2013
A craniofacial-specific monosynaptic circuit enables heightened affective pain. Rodriguez, E., Sakurai, K., Xu, J., Chen, Y., Toda, K., Zhao, S., Han B.X., Ryu, D., Yin, H., Liedtke, W., Wang, F. (2017).
Nature Neuroscience 20:1734-1743.