Nancy Padilla-Coreano, Ph.D.
Without having a clear understanding of how the brain normally functions, it’s difficult to address psychological disorders that impact the mind.
This is the foundation upon which Nancy Padilla-Coreano, Ph.D., bases her research. Using tools including in vivo electrophysiology, optogenetics — controlling a neuron’s activity using light and genetic engineering — and machine learning, she and her team study behavior in mouse models, with the goal of identifying the neural circuits that guide social behavior and how they are impacted by abnormal brain functions.
“Humans are hypersocial, and psychological disorders have the ability to disrupt that,” said Padilla-Coreano, an assistant professor in the department of neuroscience. “Many animal models are social just like we are, so studying them can help us better understand ourselves.”
Growing up in Puerto Rico, Padilla-Coreano initially wanted to research the effect of music on the human brain. However, she became interested in the possibilities of learning about social behavior through animal models during her undergraduate days at the University of Puerto Rico and at Columbia University in New York, where she earned her doctoral degree in neurobiology and behavior.
In 2021, Padilla-Coreano joined the faculty of the UF College of Medicine, where she and her team use neural networks, a form of AI, to measure data points that are more difficult or impossible to view with the human eye. This also allows quantitative measurements to be taken more quickly. Her team hopes studying social behaviors in animal models will enable scientists to better understand how different parts of the brain affect psychological disorders in humans.
Padilla-Coreano said applying AI to her research lab augments what trained researchers can do, but it’s not meant to serve as a replacement for the expertise offered by humans.
“There is still some degree of error to consider when using machine learning, so it’s a useful tool that helps our researchers work more effectively,” she said. “You cannot ask a mouse what they’re thinking, but using these different methods we have at hand enables us to discern their social behaviors more clearly.”