Emory neuroscientist among just 13 in nation chosen for Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Nov. 12, 2019

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Emory College professor Aubrey Kelly has earned the university’s first Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Award in Neuroscience, a highly competitive honor for young investigators. Her lab studies mechanisms underlying social behavior.

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Emory professor Aubrey Kelly has earned the university’s first Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Award in Neuroscience, a highly competitive honor for young investigators in neuroscience research from The Esther A. & Joseph Klingenstein Fund and the Simons Foundation. She is one of only 13 early career scientists in the nation to receive the award this year.

Previously known as the Klingenstein Fellowship Awards in the Neurosciences, this year's awards mark the seventh from this joint project of the Klingenstein Fund and the Simons Foundation. The awards are among the nation's oldest and most illustrious fellowships for young investigators in neuroscience research. 

“This is a great accomplishment for one of our faculty so early in her career. We’re excited to see how Aubrey Kelly’s innovative research evolves to help advance our understanding of social behavior,” says Michael A. Elliott, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

Kelly, an Emory College assistant professor of psychology, utilizes interdisciplinary approaches in her research to understand the neural mechanisms underlying variation in animal behavior across multiple social species, including estrildid finches, voles and spiny mice. This new research has the potential to provide a deeper understanding of the factors that promote social interactions, from parent-child bonding to cooperative behavior.

“The Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship gives my lab the opportunity to work with the African spiny mouse, which is new to the field of social neuroscience,” says Kelly. “Spiny mice exhibit a higher degree of sociality than traditional laboratory mammals, and thus have the unique potential to inform us about the mechanisms that promote aspects of mammalian sociality, such as cooperation and gregariousness.”

Using an integrative, interdisciplinary approach, the researchers in the Kelly Lab combine techniques from behavioral ecology, neuroendocrinology, developmental neurobiology and genetics to study the mechanisms underlying social behavior.

“Behaviors that seem uniquely human and intractably complicated, such as love, originated from somewhere,” Kelly explains. “The mechanisms that guide such behaviors can be found in our more primitive origins, which is why insight into human behavior can be gained from non-human animal studies. Elucidating the neural systems underlying social behavior in spiny mice is, therefore, of translational significance, and what we can learn from a highly social mouse can tell us about our own sociality.”

The lab aims to map the social brain, with a specific emphasis on examining how social neural circuitry (primarily the nonapeptide system) modulates various types of social behavior in different contexts. They hope to understand how different modes of nonapeptide action serve to maintain stable characteristics of social behavioral phenotype within an individual’s lifetime versus serving to produce rapid behavioral responses to social stimuli in the environment.

Nonapeptides include the well-known neurohormones, oxytocin and vasopressin, that not only modulate numerous types of behavior (pair bonding, aggression, anxiety, gregariousness), but also regulate various physiological processes, such as water retention, cardiovascular tone and uterine contractions in childbirth. 

The Klingenstein-Simons award totals $225,000 for a three-year fellowship and includes the opportunity to participate in a yearly conference held in New York to encourage cross-disciplinary and intercollegiate fellowship. The conference includes slide and poster presentations that encourage networking with peers, exchanging ideas and learning from leaders in the neuroscience field.

To learn more about the Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship Award in Neuroscience, visit www.klingfund.org.