Michele A. Basso, Ph.D.
Michele A. Basso received her Ph.D. working with Dr. Craig Evinger at Stony Brook University in 1995. It was during this time that her interest in Parkinson’s disease developed. For her thesis work, Dr. Basso used a rodent model of Parkinson’s disease and revealed the anatomical and physiological pathways that underlie a prominent and early symptom of Parkinson’s disease called the glabellar tap sign. This symptom appears as a loss of control of blinking in response to blink-evoking stimuli such as puffs of air or taps on the forehead. In healthy humans and other animals, blinks normally occur in response to taps on the forehead. With repeated taps, however, the blinks diminish. In Parkinson’s disease in contrast, the habituation of blinking fails to occur. In fact, the response of the system controlling blinks can be so extreme that some patients develop severe spams of the eyelid muscle rendering them functionally blind. This extreme symptom is a focal dystonia referred to as blepharospasm. Dr. Basso’s Ph.D. work was the first to show how damage to a brain region that is involved in Parkinson’s disease (the basal ganglia) can lead to this symptom.
After completing her Ph.D., Dr. Basso moved to the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of health for post-doctoral training. In the Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research she worked with Dr. Robert Wurtz studying how the brain makes choices about where to look when faced with options. During this time, Dr. Basso explored how the basal ganglia, together with one of its major target structures the superior colliculus, work together to determine action choices. Her work during this time led her to begin thinking about cognitive symptoms associated with movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and dystonia. After completing her post-doctoral fellowship in 2000, Dr. Basso moved to the University of Wisconsin where she accepted her first faculty position in the Department of Neuroscience. In 2012, she moved to UCLA as Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior where she has assumed the position of Director of the Fuster Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience. At UCLA, Dr. Basso and members of her laboratory study how the brain converts visual images into commands to move and the neuronal processes that intervene between seeing and acting. These processes include learning, memory and decision-making. Her focus is in understanding the brain mechanisms of these processes in the healthy brain and how they go awry in diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and dystonia.
The work performed by Basso and her colleagues in the Fuster Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience spans a large range from in vitro studies exploring the cellular mechanisms of neuronal circuits giving rise to behavior, to psychophysical and electrophysiological studies in non-human primates to psychophysical studies in both healthy humans and in clinical populations. Her experiments in clinical populations are performed in collaboration with neurologists, neurosurgeons and neuropsychologists. Her most recent work translates directly the experiments performed in non-human primates to patients with Parkinson’s disease to assess how well patients make decisions when placed in conditions of uncertainty and how well they can use their memories to guide their decision-making. By performing such a range of studies, Dr. Basso’s work bridges the large gap between cellular and systems neuroscience and she is hopeful that this work will shed light on the neuronal basis of higher mental function leading to better diagnostics as well as treatments in the future.