Fletcher to Use Pew Grant to Study Olfactory Function

By Estes Gould

Max Fletcher, Ph.D., one of this year’s Pew Scholars in the Biomedical Sciences said that, as a scientist, he enjoys trying to answer things for which no one has answers yet.


(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Fletcher, an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s department of anatomy and neurobiology, is one of only 22 young scientists awarded by the Pew Charitable Trusts this year. The prestigious prize includes a $240,000 grant over four years, and it has been awarded to many who went on to win such awards as the Nobel Prize.

“It’s definitely exciting any time you get an award like this, but there’s a certain amount of pressure to succeed,” he said.

Matthew Ennis, Simon R. Bruesch Professor and chair of the department of anatomy and neurobiology, said Fletcher has the potential to join those ranks. He said the department recruited Fletcher last year because of his motivation and energy, as well as his research.

Shortly after Fletcher began his job, Ennis approached him to apply for the Pew grant. The grant is only extended to young scientists in the first few years as an assistant professor and within 10 years of getting a doctorate.

“He brings an innovative and creative approach, and he has the potential to become a truly great scientist,” Ennis said.

The grant will support Fletcher’s study of the olfactory bulb, the first region of the brain to register and identify odor by converting the smell into neural activity. By studying the neurons that activate during this process, Fletcher hopes to learn more about how smell affects learning.

But Fletcher’s method made him as worthy of the award as his topic of study, Ennis said.

Fletcher is using mice with proteins inserted in their brains that become fluorescent when certain neurons activate. Parts of the mouse’s brain literally glow green when the olfactory bulb is working.

“This funding is focused on riskier techniques or things that might not be easy to accomplish,” Fletcher said.

But the new approach could have far-reaching implications.

“It’s definitely exciting
any time you get an award like this, but there’s a certain amount of pressure to succeed.”

–Max Fletcher
Assistant Professor,
University of Tennessee
Health Science Center

People who get food poisoning tend to remember from what food, and they tend to avoid it. Fletcher’s research could help explain how such a sensory experience affects the brain. He hopes to continue with behavioral research on the subject, studying how olfactory perceptions relate to memory and learning – why a person remembers that odor, and why that person would feel nauseated or avoid it.

This would be the first time in the field that a genetically engineered activity recorder successfully monitored changes in this area of a living animal’s brain. It could be a step toward noninvasive monitoring of human brain activity.

Fletcher’s research eventually could lead to help for Alzheimer’s disease patients, who usually lose function in their olfactory bulb in early stages of the disease.

“This is why these regions are so critical,” he said. “Is there some way to reverse that, draw some general conclusions, maybe replace what’s been lost or recover some ability in that area?”

Fletcher is not the only person studying this issue, nor is he the only one using this method, Ennis said. But he is one of very few, and he is one of the youngest.

Fletcher is only 35 years old; he graduated with his doctorate from Yale University in 2005. He said science was always something that interested him, but he began working in the olfactory field by chance when his lab at the University of Oklahoma was studying the topic.

“That’s when I found out there were a lot of things in that area we don’t know,” he said. “There were just a lot of things to learn.”

He has been published in medical journals for his olfactory research, and he was recruited to UTHSC while working on this project. Fletcher said he intends to stay in Memphis for a while.

“It’s very similar to Oklahoma – not too small, not too big.”