Dr. Conor Liston Named Rita Allen Foundation Scholar

Dr. Conor Liston, an assistant professor of neuroscience in the Feil Family Brain and Mind Institute and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, has been named a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar.

The Rita Allen Foundation funds early-career investigators in the fields of cancer, immunology, neuroscience and pain who use innovative approaches to answer basic scientific questions that address problems of global concern. Rita Allen Scholars have made important contributions in their fields and have received recognition, including the Nobel Prize.

As a Rita Allen Foundation Scholar, Dr. Liston will receive $500,000 over the next five years to research a form of short-term memory called working memory. This is a cognitive process in the brain that allows humans to temporarily remember and manipulate information, even while being immersed in another activity. Through studies in mice, Dr. Liston seeks to understand the ways in which circuits in the part of the brain that is responsible for high-level thinking and behavior, called the prefrontal cortex, support working memory and how those processes are disrupted by stress-related psychiatric conditions.

“Our interest in knowing how prefrontal circuits support working memory and how these processes are disrupted by chronic stress is motivated partly by work showing that some people with depression and other stress-related psychiatric conditions suffer from deficits in working memory,” Dr. Liston said.     

Dr. Liston’s findings could have implications for a large segment of the U.S. population. Stress can damage areas of the brain and increase the risk of depression. By some estimates, up to 20 percent of people will experience at least one major depressive episode in their lifetime.

Historically, cognitive psychologists have recognized the special qualities of working memory. First, it functions despite interference (up to a limit) from involvement in another activity. For example, if someone paused mid-conversation to order lunch, working memory would allow him or her to look up the phone number of a pizzeria and remember it. Participating in the continuing discussion wouldn’t impact his or her ability.

Second, working memory is amenable to updating. If someone changed his or her mind and decided to order a sandwich for lunch, he or she could look up the phone number of a deli. The fact that he or she just memorized the pizzeria’s digits wouldn’t prevent him or her from remembering a new number.

According to Dr. Liston, working memory is an interesting process to study, because of these unique qualities.

Through his research, Dr. Liston hopes to explain how different subtypes of neurons in the prefrontal cortical circuit enable working memory. He will delineate how these mechanisms are disrupted and test strategies in mice for restoring them.       

“Understanding the underlying mechanisms by which stress disrupts working memory will inform future efforts to develop new treatment strategies for stress-related psychiatric conditions,” Dr. Liston said.

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