Weizhe Hong awarded 2 prestigious grants to research the neural basis of social behavior

Weizhe Hong, PhD UCLA Department of Neurobiology
Weizhe Hong, PhD UCLA Department of Neurobiology

Weizhe Hong, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Biological Chemistry and the Department of Neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, has been awarded the prestigious Mallinckrodt Foundation Scholar Award and the Vallee Scholar Award. These honors provide young scientists with funding to pursue innovative research at the critical early stage of their careers as independent investigators. Only two Mallinckrodt Foundation Scholar awards and five Vallee Scholar awards are conferred annually.

“I am extremely honored and happy to receive these awards,” Hong says. “They will give me the freedom to explore risky ideas and go after challenging projects that would otherwise have been difficult to pursue.” 

The Mallinckrodt Scholar and the Vallee Scholar awards are $400,000 and $300,000, respectively, to be spent over four years. 

Hong joined UCLA in 2016 to establish his own research group on the neural basis of social behavior. Trained as a biologist, he received his PhD in 2012 from Stanford University, where he studied how neural circuits are established during development in fruit flies. He went on to the California Institute of Technology as a postdoctoral fellow, working on the neural mechanisms underlying social and emotional behaviors in animals. 

At UCLA, his lab is employing a multidisciplinary approach to identify the molecular circuits in the brain that control social behaviors, as well as to understand how they go awry in psychiatric disorders such as autism.

“Despite the importance of social interaction for our health and well-being, we still do not understand how social information is processed and integrated in the nervous system,” Hong explains. “Because social behavior is complex and is determined by multiple factors at different levels, we need an integrative multilevel understanding.”

Hong uses a variety of experimental and computational approaches in his research – including optogenetics (a technique that uses optics and genetics to control the activities of individual neurons in living tissue), advanced imaging of the brain, single-cell sequencing, bioinformatics and machine learning – to find answers that link genes to neural circuits to behaviors. He says that by uncovering the neural basis of how social behaviors are regulated in our brains, we can have a better understanding of psychiatric disorders and thus develop effective therapies.

Because Hong’s research requires expertise in multiple disciplines, he says UCLA, with a world-leading medical school and strong basic science and engineering departments, is the perfect place to conduct it. “It is a unique cluster of extremely smart and friendly colleagues across a broad spectrum of disciplines.”

Read more about Hong’s lab’s most recent research.

Written by Sandra Capellera-Garcia