By Michelle Jaffee
In her inaugural lab in the McKnight Brain Institute, new UF neuroscience faculty member Nancy Padilla-Coreano, Ph.D., is investigating how neural mechanisms may drive social behaviors, from social dominance and competence to the emergence of social deficits, prevalent in some neuropsychiatric disorders.
“I’m really interested in understanding how the brain helps us socialize — how we are able to know how to act with each other and how to exist in these groups,” says Padilla-Coreano, an assistant professor of neuroscience who joined UF after completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute for Biological Science in 2021. “We’re a social species, and we navigate our social spaces. We need to do that not just for survival and reproduction but also to thrive in life. There are a lot of diseases, especially psychiatric and neurological diseases, that affect our ability to navigate our social spaces and to behave socially. And there are really no treatments for that, and one reason is we have very little understanding of how the brain does this.”
By uncovering the roots of social behaviors, one goal is to contribute to future development of targeted molecular therapies for social disorders.
In her research, Padilla-Coreano is applying techniques such as optogenetics, or controlling a neuron’s activity using light and genetic engineering, in vivo electrophysiology that measures neuronal activity, and machine learning in male and female mouse models.
In her most recent paper, published in Nature on March 16 using research performed while she was at Salk, Padilla-Coreano and a multi-institution team paired a novel social dominance test, in which mice compete for rewards, with an artificial intelligence computer-vision tool to track multiple, unmarked mice. Their goal was to investigate how the medial prefrontal cortex, or mPFC, computes relative social rank and identify which circuits bring about this computation.
The study, led by Padilla-Coreano and Kay Tye, Ph.D., of Salk, demonstrated that mPFC cells that project to the lateral hypothalamus influence dominance behavior during competition for rewards, revealing involvement of a cortico-hypothalamic circuit in guiding social competition behavior.
Padilla-Coreano’s passion to illuminate the inner workings of the brain extends far beyond the walls of her lab. On Stories of WiN, which stands for “Women in Neuroscience,” the podcast she co-founded and leads, she and colleagues from across the country explore the journeys and research of fellow female scientists. Most recently, she interviewed Harvard postdoc Yasmin Escobedo Lozoya, Ph.D., on how different regions of the brain communicate.
And in January, Padilla-Coreano sat on the other side of the mic and shared her own journey when Alan Alda featured her on his Clear+Vivid podcast for an episode teased with this line: “How do we instantly sense whether someone has more or less power than we have – and change our behavior as a result?”
A graduate of the University of Puerto Rico with a bachelor’s in molecular biology, Padilla-Coreano earned her doctorate in neurobiology and behavior at Columbia University and went on to complete two postdoctoral fellowships under Tye, first at MIT and then at Salk. Among awards she’s received are the Henry Grass Neuroscience Rising Star, L’Oréal USA Women in Science Fellow and a National Science Foundation Fellowship.
“We are extremely fortunate to have recruited Dr. Padilla-Coreano,” said Jennifer Bizon, Ph.D., chair of UF’s department of neuroscience. “Her innovative research on elucidating neural circuit dynamics of social decision-making significantly strengthens our foundational science in neuropsychiatric disease, and her expertise is an asset to UF’s AI initiative, where I anticipate she’ll become a leader within our neuroscience community.”