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The Beneficial Effects of Social Interactions in a Group: From Behavioral Genetics to Computational Models

Principal Investigators:

Alon Chen, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Department of Neurobiology, Weizmann Institute of Science
Elad Schneidman, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, Department of Neurobiology, Weizmann Institute of Science

While considerable research has focused on the aversive effects of social deprivation and aggression-induced 'social stress', relatively little is known about the molecular mechanisms and behavioral effects of beneficial social interactions. Physical and emotional interactions between individuals, and within a group, can induce positive emotional states, and lead to physiological adaptations and behavioral changes necessary for relaxation, resilience, attachment, growth, achievements, and healing. In humans, social support and positive social experiences have well documented health benefits, such as the reduction of the risk for a wide range of diseases, including cardiovascular dysfunction, high blood pressure, anxiety and mood disorders.

The molecular and cellular substrates that mediate the effects of social stimuli and which underlie the benefits of positive social experiences are poorly understood. Understanding the neurobiology of social interactions by manipulating relevant brain circuits and genes, will provide important insights into the brain mechanisms by which social interaction affects psychological and physiological processes. An analysis of the behavioral implications of positive social requires a mapping of the social interactions in a group, which has been rarely studied in a quantitative manner before.

We therefore propose a multidisciplinary approach that will employ gene expression profile and mice genetic tools, together with detailed tracking of social behavior of a group in a semi-natural environment and mathematical analysis, to characterize the interplay between genes, social interactions, and behavior.


Born in Israel, Alon Chen, Ph.D., completed a B.Sc. in biological studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (1995, with distinction), followed by a direct Ph.D. program in Neuroendocrinology at the Weizmann Institute of Science, under the guidance of Prof. Yitzhak Koch in the Department of Neurobiology, completed in 2001, again with distinction. Between 2001 and September 2005 he served as a Research Associate in the Laboratories for Peptide Biology (with Prof. Wylie W. Vale), at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA. In October 2005, he returned to the Weizmann Institute of Science as a Senior Scientist (Assistant Professor equivalent) in the Department of Neurobiology. His scientific work has earned him a number of distinguished awards and honors, including: a Fellowship of distinction (for Ph.D. studies) in memory of Prof. Dov Elad, granted by the Feinberg Graduate School of the Weizmann Institute of Science, 2001; a Fellowship of distinction for Ph.D. studies granted by the Israeli Parliament, 2001; a postdoctoral Rothschild Fellowship, 2001-2002; a postdoctoral Fulbright Fellowship, 2001-2002 and the 'Alon Fellowship', the most prestigious Israeli fellowship for returning scientists, granted by the Israeli Council for Higher Education, 2007-2009. The long-term goal of Dr. Chen's research is to elucidate the pathways by which stress is perceived, processed, and transduced into neuroendocrine and behavioral responses. He is the author of numerous publications in leading journals and of three patents. Dr. Chen also has a keen interest in science education, both of youth and of advanced students.

Elad Schneidman, Ph.D., received his B.Sc. in physics and computer science in the honors program of the Hebrew University (1990, magna cum laude). He then served as a R&D officer in the Israeli Army (as part of his obligatory service), and worked in a national research lab. He received his Ph.D. in Computational Neuroscience Interdisciplinary program of the Hebrew University in 2001, under the guidance of Prof. Idan Segev (Neurobiology) and Prof. Naftali Tishby (Computer Science). During this time he also worked in two biomedical startup companies, specializing in optical signals analysis and image processing algorithms for biological tissue classifications. Schneidman then moved to Princeton University where he was a postdoc in Physics and Biology, working with Prof. William Bialek (Physics and Genomics Center) and Michael Berry (Molecular Biology). In October 2006 he joined the Weizmann Institute of Science as a Senior Scientist (Assistant Professor equivalent) in the Department of Neurobiology. He is also a member of the faculty for the course in methods in Computational Neuroscience at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole MA (2002-2004, 2008-2012). Schneidman was on the Dean and Rector list during his undergraduate degree, won the Wolf Prize for Ph.D. students (1999), the Eshkol Ph.D. fellowship from the Israeli ministry of science (1998-2001), a postdoctoral Rothschild Fellowship (2001), a new faculty fellowship from the center for complexity (2006-9), and the Gruber prize for young scientists (2007). Schneidman is interested in questions at the interface of biology, physics and computer science. He studies the design principles of the neural code of networks of neurons working together, the algorithmic and practical computational limits of learning in humans, and the architecture and functions of group swarming, and decision making in groups leading to collective behavior.

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