The living human brain is a puzzle to scientists, in part because its inner workings are so hard to observe. Wendy Xiao, a student in the medical school’s Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP)—known on campus as the M.D./Ph.D. Program—is helping to lift the veil with research that maps activity in the brain as it forms a conscious experience. She is also the inaugural recipient of a fellowship award established at Yale by the Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Research Foundation.

Xiao and her colleagues in the lab of Hal Blumenfeld, M.D., Ph.D., the Mark Loughridge and Michele Williams Professor of Neurology and professor of neuroscience and neurosurgery, showed human subjects a degraded image of a human face set in various contexts, while measuring electrical activity across the brain. “The intriguing thing is that our equipment registered the stimulus as it entered the primary visual cortex, whether the subject reported awareness of the face or not,” Xiao says. “Yet corresponding activity in other parts of the brain varied dramatically. There seem to be ‘gates’ that control the entry of information into our consciousness, and we want to understand that.”

Late last year the Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Research Foundation made a gift of $1 million to support the School of Medicine’s M.D./Ph.D. Program. The gift currently funds a single fellowship, but it will support more fellows in the future as the endowment fund grows.

“Yale is known for training physician-scientists who excel both in research and in the practice of medicine and thus are positioned to move discoveries from the laboratory into medical practice,” said Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine. “I am grateful to the Pfeiffer Foundation for its generous funding of financial aid for our M.D./Ph.D. students.”

Xiao credits Yale’s M.D./Ph.D. Program for making her both a better clinician and scientist. “Very few programs provide students with the opportunity to treat patients in the hospital or clinic while they complete their doctoral work. This keeps our clinical skills sharp and emphasizes individual patient care,” she said. “At the same time, being a member of a research university like Yale has ignited my interest in understanding how or why a treatment is implemented not just for one patient but for the larger population.”

Barbara Kazmierczak, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine and microbial pathogenesis and director of the program, notes that Yale is a national leader in this kind of education. “For a very long time,” Kazmierczak says, “Yale has emphasized the training of physicians who are scientists and scientists who function as physicians, so we integrate these two aspects of training very effectively.” Since 1969, the program has drawn top students, in part because the university offers graduate work in fields as diverse as public health, medical anthropology, neuroscience, and biomedical engineering. For most of its existence, Yale’s MSTP was helmed by James Jamieson, M.D., Ph.D., professor of cell biology. Jamieson led the program from 1974 to 2014, with the exception of the years 1983 to 1992, when he chaired the Department of Cell Biology. Kazmierczak succeeded him as director in 2014.

“Our graduates usually establish research careers after they finish their training, and not lucrative private practices. We support their education so they don’t graduate with significant debt,” Kazmierczak says. The Pfeiffer Foundation’s “gift will establish an endowment for long-term support, which is especially meaningful as we expand student enrollment in this important program.”

In addition to its support of the M.D./Ph.D. Program, the foundation also awarded a grant to the School of Medicine for studies that will advance the development of a new class of antidepressant. This project is led by principal investigator John H. Krystal, M.D., the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Professor of Translational Research, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, and professor of neuroscience. The grant will allow Krystal’s team to evaluate the use of ketamine, which works on an entirely different type of neurotransmitter system than current medications do and has proven to be fast acting and effective for short periods. Treatment with ketamine may allow physicians to treat depression rapidly in combination with long-lasting treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

The Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Research Foundation has a longstanding relationship with Yale and has most notably supported the Yale Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences and scientific research in several fields.