UC Berkeley professor receives $875K research fellowship to study bats

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Campus assistant professor of neuroscience and bioengineering Michael Yartsev was awarded the 2017 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering on Monday, providing him with $875,000 to continue his research on bats.

Yartsev researches vocal development in bats and its relationship to human language development. Leading the NeuroBat Lab on campus, his research emphasizes the mechanisms that support language learning in the mammalian brain.

The NeuroBat Lab “seeks to understand the neural basis of complex spatial and acoustic behaviors in mammals,” according to its website.

“(Bats) are also one of the only mammals on our planet which are capable of learning their vocalization. … This is why they are a very good model system,” Yartsev said. “(Primates) are incapable of learning their vocalization. They are not a useful model for studying that aspect of human capabilities.”

According to Georgeann Sack, spokesperson for Berkeley Neuroscience, the motive behind choosing bats over another animal to study is that bats are adept at spatial navigation and acoustic communication.

This year, Yartsev was among 18 researchers awarded the fellowship because of his research on how brains become able to acquire language.

These recipients were deemed “the nation’s most innovative, early-career scientists and engineers,” according to the David Lucile and Packard Foundation website.

Yartsev’s lab is one of only a few labs in the world that studies the neurophysiology of bats, according to Sack.

“Yartsev is a truly innovative scientist, applying state of the art neurotechnologies to the study of brain mechanisms underlying complex behaviors in bats,” Sack said in an email.

Unlike most mammals that are bound to land, the bat has the unique ability to navigate in a three-dimensional manner, making the animal’s mobile functions very complex, according to Yartsev.

Before studying the brain mechanisms of bats, Yartsev explored the mechanisms of decision-making at Princeton University in a laboratory using mostly rodents.

“Yartsev is establishing bats as the first mammalian model for vocal learning. Bats learn to make vocalizations and communicate with each other, putting them on a small list of mammals that are able to learn language like humans,” Sack said.

Yartsev said that, in addition to understanding language learning, he hopes these findings help treat diseases that affect language such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Luke Lee, a campus professor of bioengineering, praised Yartsev’s ability to challenge humans’ understanding of language and the complexity of spatial and acoustic behaviors to understand the “hidden truth” of vocal-learning mammals.

“I treasure his forward thinking of applying new technological tools for new science,” Lee said in an email.

Contact Mark Henry Salupen at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @salupen_markdc.