In addition to being an Eminent Scholar of Georgia Research Alliance in Systems and Cognitive Neuroscience, Dr. Joe Z. Tsien is also Professor of Neurology and Co-Director of the Brain and Behavior Discovery Institute in the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. His laboratory has a long-standing interest in developing and applying various genetic, physiological and mathematical tools to understand how the brain generates memory, knowledge and other cognitive behaviors. Tsien is leading a team of neuroscientists, computer scientists and mathematicians, who are all working on the Brain Decoding Project, a large-scale brain activity mapping effort, which he and his colleagues have initiated since 2007 with the support from the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) (Tsien et al., On Initial Brain Activity Mapping of Episodic and Semantic Memory Code in the Hippocampus. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 2013). Dr. Tsien has recently developed the Theory of Connectivity to describe the basic wiring and computational logic of the brain.
Over the past 15 years, Tsien and his colleagues has created several key tools of mouse genetics for neuroscience, including pioneering work in the development of cre/loxP-mediated genetic techniques that allows neuroscientists to manipulate genes in specific brain region and specific neuron type(s) (Tsien et al. Subregion- and cell type-restricted gene knockout in mouse brain. Cell, 87:1317-26. 1996). This cre/lox technique has provided a versatile platform for circuit- and cell type-specific pathway tracing, optogenetics, voltage imaging, and chemical-genetics. Tsien has further applied inducible and region-specific gene or protein knockout techniques to study the neural mechanisms underlying distinct temporal stages of memory, such as consolidation, storage, and memory retrieval (Shimizu et al., Science, 2000; Wang et al., PNAS, 2003; Cui et al., Neuron, 2004; Cao et al., Neuron, 2008, Wang et al. Neuron, 2011). Tsien and his colleagues have also reported a novel molecular method by which a given fear memory can be rapidly and selectively erased or degraded through manipulating αCaMKII activity at the time of memory recall. This original work was chosen as the cover story for Neuron’s October issue (Cao et al. Neuron, 2008). These studies have laid the groundwork for a much more sophisticated understanding of the molecular and network mechanisms by which the NMDA receptor regulates memory’s acquisition, consolidation, storage, and retrieval in the brain.
Tsien is also known as the creator of smart mouse Doogie. His team has discovered that genetic overexpression of the NR2B subunit of the NMDA receptor can lead enhanced synaptic plasticity, learning and memory in the brain (Tang et al. Nature, 1999). His rodent creature has been the cover story of Time magazine, New York Times, etc. and was selected as one of top ten major scientific breakthroughs by Science magazine for the year 1999. Tsien and his colleagues continued to study memory enhancement in mice (Cao X, et al. 2007; Cui Y, et al. 2011; Jacobs and Tsien JZ. 2012), and went on to create the smart rat Hobbie-J (Wang et al. PLOS One, 2009). The discovery of the NR2B as a key genetic factor for memory enhancement has prompted other researchers to discover over two dozen of other genes, many of them in the NR2B pathway (Neuroscience: Small, furry … and smart), in enhancing memory in mice and to search for brain-boosting effects on humans. One of the NR2B enhancement strategies is via dietary supplements of a brain penetrating magnesium ion. It has entered pilot clinical trials for testing its effectiveness in boosting brain function (Testing magnesium's brain-boosting effects article on Nature.com).
Dr. Tsien grew up in China and received his undergraduate education at East China Normal University in Shanghai from which he graduated in 1984. He came to the United States in 1986 and did his graduate work with Dr. Lester Drewes at the University of Minnesota from which he received a PhD. in molecular biology and biochemistry in 1990. Over the ensuing seven years he worked as a postdoctoral associate in Dr. Eric Kandel laboratory at Columbia University and Dr. Susumu Tonegawa at MIT. In 1997, Tsien started his own laboratory at Princeton University where he identified the NR2B gene as the critical subunit of the NMDA receptors for achieving memory enhancement and created the smart mouse Doogie. In 2004, he moved to Boston University to become the full professor in Pharmacology and Biomedical Engineering and Director of the Center for Systems Neurobiology. In 2007, he joins the faculty of Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University as an GRA Eminent Scholar in Cognitive and Systems Neurobiology and serves as the co-director of its new Brain and Behavior Discovery Institute (BBDI).
Tsien has been the recipient of many awards for his research contributions including: Distinguished Scientist Award from International Behavioral and Neural Genetics Society (2012), Keck Distinguished Young Scholar Award, Cheung Kong Scholar from Li Ka Shing Foundation, Burroughs Wellcome Young Investigator Award, Scientific Achievement Award from the Association of Chinese American, Beckman Young Investigator Award, Bacaner Basic Research Award from Minnesota Medical Foundation. Tsien has also authored chapters on learning and memory for textbooks such as Basic Neurochemistry, New Encyclopedia of Neuroscience, Computational Neuroscience, Handbook of Episodic Memory as well as others. He is also the author for two invited feature articles in Scientific American (Tsien, Building a brainier mouse. Scientific American, April issue, 2000; Tsien, The Memory Code, Scientific American, July, 2007).