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New faculty Rick Sando: A better understanding of brain circuitry

Oct. 26, 2020, 2:30 PM

MyVU is spotlighting a select group of new faculty for 2020-21. Read more profiles in the series.

By Lorena Infante Lara

Our brains function thanks to billions of connections between neurons firing off at the right time and in the right place. But how do our bodies ensure that these neurons correctly connect to one another? Rick Sando, a new assistant professor of pharmacology joining Vanderbilt’s faculty in January 2021, will soon arrive in Nashville to work on this brain teaser.

Specifically, Sando is interested in how neural circuits are assembled in the mammalian brain. Neural circuits are groups of neurons that are interconnected by incredibly diverse types of synapses—junctions between neurons that form the core of neural communication—to carry out specific functions when activated. The concerted efforts of these neural circuits underlie information processing, learning, memory and more. The processes, however, sometimes go awry, resulting in the development of neurological disorders.

“The brain is the most complex processing system that we know of, so a mechanistic understanding of how the neural circuits function and are assembled is required before we can effectively treat neurological disorders.”

“For an engineer to fix a broken computer,” Sando explains, “they have to understand how the computer is built and how the different parts function together in a concerted manner. The brain is the most complex processing system that we know of, so a mechanistic understanding of how the neural circuits function and are assembled is required before we can effectively treat neurological disorders.”

In a similar manner, Sando’s work will attempt to parse the molecular logic of how the brain’s neural circuits are normally formed and could eventually yield clues to how some disorders arise, considering that many of the cellular and molecular processes he studies have been linked to autism, addiction and ADHD.

Sando, a Pennsylvania native, currently is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Stanford University professor and Nobel Laureate Thomas Südhof, who studies synaptic transmission—the transmission of electrical and chemical communication between neurons. Working in Südhof’s lab, which is particularly large compared to other research labs, has provided Sando with valuable insight.

“One of the great things about being in such a big lab is the diversity of colleagues that you have around you,” Sando says. “They come from a wide range of backgrounds and have different specialties, expertise and experiences. Learning from them has been one of the best parts of my postdoc experience.”

Sando says he is excited to be joining a similarly “diverse and collaborative environment at Vanderbilt,” and is convinced that it will be the ideal place for him. As he looks forward to joining the university community with his wife and two small children while also exploring the wilderness trails around Middle Tennessee in his free time, he is ready to carve his own path as a faculty member.

“Both the Department of Pharmacology and the Vanderbilt Brain Institute are at the forefront of research on mechanisms of signal transduction, G protein-coupled receptor structure and function, and neurobiology,” he says. “All of that combined with their current emphasis on imaging techniques at various levels makes Vanderbilt an exciting fit for my research program.”

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