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Introducing Dr. Meital Oren-Suissa

Just how different are male and female brains?


New scientists

Date: October 18, 2017
Dr. Meital Oren-Suissa

Dr. Meital Oren-Suissa

The sexually reproducing animals of Earth share most of the neurons and circuits that control particular behaviors. So how is it that male and female behavior is so different? Dr. Meital Oren-Suissa, a new recruit to the Department of Neurobiology, studies how sex-specific connections in the brain arise, and how these circuits lead to different behavioral outputs.

Although these questions could be applied to virtually all sexually reproducing animals, Dr. Oren-Suissa is attempting to answer these questions using the worm known as C. elegans.

Why a worm? Just like the nervous systems of other organisms, the male and hermaphrodite nervous systems of C. elegans share the vast majority of neurons, but each sex also has its own set of sex-specific neurons—that is, neurons that exist in one sex but not the other. What makes C. elegans an exceptionally elegant model system is how well-defined its genome is.

“All scientists are familiar with the dogma that genes encode proteins that build circuits that define behaviors,” says Dr. Oren-Suissa, who completed her postdoctoral research at Columbia University in New York, during which time she was a Revson Fellow in the Israel National Postdoctoral Program for Advancing Women in Science. “But the molecular links from genes to behaviors is extremely complex. Because we not only have the entire genome of C. elegans decoded, but we also have all the connections between C. elegans neurons mapped out in the two sexes, this worm is an ideal model system for addressing the challenge and finding the links at the single-cell level, with amazingly high resolution and in the context of a living organism.”

Studying sex differences in the brain

Dr. Oren-Suissa integrates neuroscience research at several levels—molecular, neuronal, circuit, and behavioral. That multi-level approach is critical in her study of the genetic-programming mechanisms that control how neuronal circuits develop, specialize their role in the brain, and are maintained over time—and how they differ in the brains of men and women.

The potential impact for research on the influence of sex on nervous system development is immense. Many genes associated with neurological diseases and disorders display sex-specific differences in developmental and pathological processes, and also in recovery mechanisms—including in Alzheimer’s disease and depression. As Dr. Oren-Suissa notes, medical treatments for these conditions inadequately factor sex into drug design, as they are largely based on experiments conducted using male animals.

From curious findings come a career shift

Dr. Oren-Suissa, who hails from Kiryat Ata and Haifa, earned her BA, MSc, and PhD from the Technion. She studied cellular biology and became interested in neuroscience rather unexpectedly.

“I was studying the role of a protein that serves to fuse cells together,” she recalls. “I was surprised to find it active in neurons, because neurons don’t fuse—they communicate with each other over synapses [gaps between cells]. It turned out that this same protein was serving a different and unique purpose in neurons, helping sculpt their shape. That got me interested in the nervous system.” She then read a journal article authored by Weizmann Institute neurobiologist Prof. Tali Kimchi, which tipped the scales for her career path towards focusing on sex differences in the brain.

“For me, being a scientist isn’t just a job. It’s a way of life,” she says. “I don’t shut off my brain after work— I keep obsessing about a scientific problem over and over. The thrill of connecting the dots after years of experiments can’t be compared to anything else.”

Dr. Meital Oren-Suissa earned her BA in molecular biochemistry cum laude (2003), her MSc in biology cum laude (2006), and her PhD in biology (2012) all from the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology. For her postdoctoral training, she chose to broaden her neuroscience skills in the lab of Prof. Oliver Hobert at Columbia University, where she focused on sex differences in neuronal wiring patterns during development. She has received several awards both for her research progress and for her teaching skills, including the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) Long-term Postdoctoral Fellowship (2013-2016), the EMBO Long-term Fellowship (2012–2013), the Israel National Postdoctoral Award for Advancing Women in Science (2012–2014), the Technion’s Faculty of Biology award for excellence in teaching (2009), and the Vivian Konigsberg and Sandor Szego Award for Excellence in Teaching (2007), among other honors.

Dr. Oren-Suissa is supported by The Azrieli Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Fels, Grosvenor Capital Management, the Estate of George Frank Nelson, Miriam Netzer, and The Joseph D. Shane Fund for Neurosciences. She is the incumbent of the Jenna and Julia Birnbach Family Career Development Chair