by Lu Tian
Dr. Alan Watts, USC professor of biological science, neuroscience, physiology and biophysics, leads a research team that focuses on the interactions between the brain and glucose metabolism.
Professor Watts was interested in how physiological stresses control particular neurons in the brain by using a shock condition called hypovolemia. By looking at how the brain responds to losses of blood volume, particularly the hypothalamus region that activates the adrenal gland, Professor Watts discovered that hypoglycemia, rather than hypovolemia is an effective stimulus for the particular stress response he was looking for.
“I sort of came in a full circle,” said Professor Watts. His research now investigates how the brain responds to various changes in glucose level and how the brain itself can change glucose level by activating epinephrine secretion and controlling pancreatic secretion. He switched from looking into hypovolemia to hypoglycemia and that brought him back to thinking about how the brain controls glucose and how it is involved in various aspects of diabetes and other complications.
“A lot of our work revolves CRH neurons”, said Professor Watts. Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is a peptide hormone and neurotransmitter made by the hypothalamus that stimulates the release of corticotropin by the anterior pituitary gland. These CRH neurons control cells in the pituitary gland, which stimulates the adrenal cortex to release glucocorticoids, steroid hormones that are involve in the regulation of glucose metabolism. Professor Watts’s research investigates how CRH alters gene expression and how neurotransmitters interact with them to control glucose level.
Professor Watt’s identified a biochemical signal that helps regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. Professor Watts and his team discovered that mitogen-activated protein kinases are key enzymes that link changes in blood glucose levels to certain neurons in the hypothalamus and the release of glucose-controlling hormones. This novel discovery by Professor Watts and his team provide better understanding of how the body balances between hyperglycemia, too much glucose in the blood, and hypoglycemia, too little glucose in the blood.
By studying neurons in the brains of rats, Professor Watts and his team map out how electrical impulses and neurochemicals cooperate within the nervous system. When glucose levels in the blood fall, this stimulates the brain to send signals to the CRH neurons to release glucocorticoid to maintain normal blood glucose. “The lower the blood glucose, the stronger the stress, so CRH neurons release more hormones,” said Professor Watts.
Most of Professor Watts’s work is basic research, which is not intended to produce immediate commercial benefit, but more to increase understanding of fundamental physiological mechanisms. “We don’t do work that’s got a direct clinical application, so we’re not developing drugs to try to reduce blood glucose for example. We are trying to understand how these brain systems work under normal circumstances and also pathological circumstances,” said Professor Watts, “by working out the mechanisms, you now have a chance to figure out what is there when things go wrong.” According to Professor Watts, trying to understand how brain systems work is the most applicable thing in his research.
Professor Watts has been a USC faculty member for more than 20 years. He was the director of NIBS Neuroscience Program, head of Neurobiology section, chair of USC Neuroscience Executive Committee, and director of Neuroscience Research Institute. He has taught and is currently teaching BISC 220 General Biology: Cell Biology and Physiology, BISC 221 Advanced General Biology: Cell Biology and Physiology, BISC 462 Seminar in Neurobiology, and NEUR 532 Systems and Behavioral Neurobiology.
Besides finding out about how brain works, Professor Watts enjoys mentoring students. His research team includes both graduate and undergraduate students. “I like interacting with students, bringing them into the lab, and seeing them develop within a project,” said Professor Watts. According to Professor Watts, no experience is required for students who are interested in joining his team. However, he prefers students who are genuinely interested in the topics he is researching about and can stay long term, preferably around 2 years.
Finally, Professor Watts has a few words of advice for students interested in pursuing a career in science. “I always find 2 qualities that I think are important in science, one imagination. Because science is a creative process, you need to be able to think in a different way. The second is initiative. You need to be able to think and actually able to turn those thoughts into actions. Be organized with your time and what you do. And the most important advice is to make sure that you are really interested in what you want to do. Be able to enjoy it and don’t be afraid to take chances.”