How the Brain Rewires Itself: Exploring Plasticity in the Human Brain
Scientists no longer ask whether the wiring in our brains the result of nature or nurture. The answer, as Canada Research Chair Dr. Edward Ruthazer knows only too well, is that both have a role to play. In his research, Dr. Ruthazer uses imaging of brain cells in live animals to explore the specific mechanisms by which genes (nature) and early experience (nurture) guide the development of brain circuitry.
Neuroanatomical studies in the last century revealed the remarkable structural complexity and diversity of brain cells. Like snapshots, however, such anatomical studies on fixed brain tissue specimens tell only a very small part of the remarkably complex story of brain development and plasticity. Dr. Ruthazer's research brings neuroanatomy from the era of snapshots to that of live action movies.
By combining live imaging technology with powerful gene transfer methods, researchers in Ruthazer's laboratory are able to observe living neurons in the intact animal as they grow, establish synaptic contacts with other brain cells, and rapidly modify these contacts in response to stimuli from the environment. The researchers then examine how brain circuit building is influenced by both visual experience and various genetic factors.
Dr. Ruthazer's research into the basic mechanisms responsible for proper brain wiring is critical for understanding what goes wrong in developmental neurological disorders and for developing methods to diagnose and treat these disorders. Furthermore, by understanding the biochemical reasons of why plasticity is much greater in juvenile brains than in adults, it becomes possible to find treatments to enhance plasticity in adults, especially during recovery from nervous system injury or stroke, when rewiring of existing circuitry is critical.