“I am inherently curious about how our body operates, especially the brain,” said Gallo, whose lab was awarded the five-year NIH grant this summer. “But I’m also very interested in science because of its power to create knowledge that could help people.”
Gallo is a Honduran-American neuroscientist. At age 18, he earned a scholarship to study in the United States. He became the first in his family to leave Honduras to pursue a college education in the U.S. (Gallo is not the first family member to work in STEM, however—his father is a civil engineer.) He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the University of New Orleans and his Ph.D. in neuroscience and neurophysiology from Weill Medical College of Cornell University. For the next seven years, he worked in Columbia University’s psychiatry department, where he started as a postdoctoral fellow and then progressed to postdoctoral research scientist, associate research scientist, and assistant professor of clinical neurobiology.
How Does Our Brain Control Our Motivations?
In 2018, he became a faculty member at Fordham. He currently teaches cell biology to undergraduates at Fordham College at Rose Hill and students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. In addition, he runs his own research lab on the second floor of Larkin Hall, which is devoted to understanding how our brain controls our motivated behavior.
“What, in our brains, drives our desire to pursue rewarding things? What cells are important for making us willing to work hard at something? For weighing the costs and benefits of a potential decision?” Gallo said. “The goal of our lab is to pinpoint what cells in our brains are critical for some of these behaviors.”
Scientists have already identified many brain regions that are involved in these behaviors, said Gallo. But they haven’t identified the individual cell types that are related to motivation, especially in the context of impulsivity.
“Let’s compare this to a car engine. We know the engine is important for the car to run, but how do the individual components in that engine make it function? Our job in the lab is to try to understand the components of that engine—or those key brain cells—and how they work together,” he said. “Once we have enough knowledge about those specific cells, then one day, someone can design therapies that go right to the problem.”
Understanding Our Impulsive Behavior in the Lab
In his new project funded by the NIH grant, Gallo is studying a small population of brain cells that is often overlooked: cholinergic interneurons. They make up about 2% of all brain cells in a key reward brain region. However, they have a wide range of control of neighboring cells, he said.
Gallo’s project will tackle several key questions: Are these cells important for a specific motivated behavior—impulsive decision-making, a common trait of people with substance use disorders and other mental illnesses? If so, what is their genetic makeup? And how do these cells function while impulsive behavior is taking place?
His team will investigate these questions using mice, which are able to make decisions about rewards and be impulsive, just like humans.
“We’re interested in how certain drugs can affect our brain processes to make us more impulsive. They can also cause impulsive behavior and a lack of decision-making abilities. Excessive impulsivity can seriously affect our health, from risky sexual behavior to how much we eat, or whether we take our medications. So if we can fully understand how the brain and all its cells work, in relation to impulsive behavior, then we might be able to target many different problems at once,” he said.
Brain Research Relevant to the Bronx and Beyond
Gallo said that his research can seem inaccessible—a part of the “ivory tower” of academia. Even the title of his research project, “Cholinergic Interneuron D2 Receptor Function in Impulsive Behavior: Implications for Addiction,” sounds complicated. But his research has the potential to affect millions of people, he said.
“The subjects that we study—mental illness, substance abuse disorder—are very relevant to our local community here in the Bronx and in New York,” said Gallo, who lives in Washington Heights with his wife and their two daughters. “Illicit drugs are inflicting harm on our health system right now. In the past, these disorders have been treated as a scourge on society. We have blamed people for not wanting to get better, but it’s really not their fault. Our brains are wired in a specific way, and drugs can make it difficult for us to resist addiction. We need to create better treatments and strategies that help people with these disorders.”
He credited his Fordham research team, which is largely made up of undergraduate and graduate students from the biological sciences and integrative neuroscience programs, with helping him reach that goal. In return, they helped him realize something about himself.
“Mentoring younger generations is one of my favorite things about being here at Fordham. Some of my students may not know for sure that they want to pursue a career in science, but I enjoy inspiring them,” Gallo said. “Sometimes they don’t realize that they want to be a scientist—or that they even can. I hope to inspire them to pursue meaningful careers in solving the mysteries of the brain.”