Conor Liston

Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute

A.B., Psychology and Biology, Harvard College
Ph.D., Neuroscience, The Rockefeller University
M.D., Weill Cornell Medicine

Project: What are the molecular mechanisms of working memory?

As an undergraduate, Conor Liston became fascinated by the science of learning and memory, and by larger questions of how the brain gives rise to consciousness. “One of the things that attracted me to neuroscience was the potential for discoveries that would transform the way we think about ourselves as people, and also could potentially transform the way we think about diagnosing and treating disorders of the brain,” he says.

Liston’s desire to improve the understanding and treatment of mental illness led him to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. During his psychiatry residency at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, he also conducted postdoctoral research with Wen-Biao Gan at New York University, investigating how stress hormones affect neural connections critical for learning. This research fueled his interest in new technologies for visualizing and experimentally manipulating activity in the living brain, and led him to a fellowship at Stanford University. There, Liston worked in the laboratory of Karl Deisseroth, known as a pioneer of optogenetics—a technique for controlling and monitoring neurons using specific wavelengths of light. Liston used optogenetics and other new imaging methods to explore the neural circuitry of fear responses and reward-seeking behaviors.

Now, Liston, an assistant professor of neuroscience in the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute, treats psychiatric patients in the clinic, and leads a research program on the neuroscience of learning, memory, stress and depression. Support from the Rita Allen Foundation will allow Liston and his team to investigate the basis of working memory—the type of memory that operates when we remember and call a phone number, but forget it a few hours later. Working memory “is both stable and robust enough to not be interfered with by irrelevant information in our environment, but also labile enough to be easily deleted and replaced with new information,” Liston explains. “That’s an interesting paradox: How does our brain register memories that have these two competing qualities?” He plans to examine how different subtypes of neurons interact to achieve this balance—and how it can be disrupted in conditions such as depression.