Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

About the PNAS Member Editor
Name Pfaff, Donald W.
Location The Rockefeller University
Primary Field Physiology and Pharmacology
Secondary Field Systems Neuroscience
 Election Citation
Pfaff has made signal contributions to the analysis of mammalian behaviors and their neuroendocrine control. Using a multiplicity of experimental approaches, he has deciphered the neuromuscular circuits whereby the sex hormones evoke the stereotypical behavior patterns associated with mating and has elucidated the biology of the neuronal systems that govern reproductive processes.
 Research Interests
Lab history: The Pfaff lab began by asking whether it is possible to demonstrate the mechanisms causing the production of a vertebrate behavior. The answer is yes. We worked out the mechanisms which produce a simple social behavior essential for reproduction. The work proceeded in four steps: (i.) discover hormone receptors in the brain; (ii.) work out the neural circuitry; (iii.) show facilitation of behaviorally relevant gene expression by the behaviorally-effective steroid hormone (an estrogen); (iv.) demonstrate that knocking out the genes for estrogen receptors or estrogen-sensitive genes significantly reduce the social behavior. Thus, working out mechanisms for a vertebrate (here, a mammalian) behavior is proven possible. Lab now: Having worked out the motivational mechanism for one behavior, we expanded our focus to ask: Does there exist a form of motivation which helps to initiate all behaviors ? The lab formulated the concept of generalized CNS arousal (GA), produced evidence that it exists, and works on it in three ways. We started by showing that giant medullary reticular formation neurons foster GA. Now we work to differentiate SY5Y cells into dopaminergic neurons, given that dopamine is an essential arousal signal. Soon we will study arousal effects of noradrenergic neurons, using simple mathematical tools in the data analysis. Now Dr. Pfaff is overseeing the publication of the 3rd edition of his textbook Neuroscience in the 21st Century, provided free of charge to medical and grad students and other scholars in economically developing countries.

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