Shedding New Light on the Genetic Origins of Neural Circuit Development
Brain cells form connections—or synapses—to communicate with each other. This accounts for the sensory, motor and cognitive experiences of all animals. These dynamic synaptic changes persist across the span of our lifetimes, but the mechanisms that govern them—and the consequences when we fail to adapt—are not well understood.
Dr. Mei Zhen, Canada Research Chair in Neural Circuit Development and Function, is trying to understand exactly how these neural connections form and change during development. She is combining cutting-edge live imaging, electron microscopy, molecular genetics and genomic tools to dissect neural wiring changes at the molecular, cellular and systems levels.
Zhen and her research team use a small roundworm called C. elegans that has an exceptionally compact neural system of just 300 neurons wired together with fewer than 10,000 synapses. Their goal is to use this model to identify all the cellular events and genetic pathways that are conserved in animal brain development and reveal the impact of each event on behaviours, such as decision-making and movement.
Zhen’s findings will have a direct impact on our understanding of human health and the human brain. For example, her discoveries of the genetic factors underlying C. elegans movement defined the cause and diagnosis of a neurological disorder called CLIFAHDD (congenital contractures of the limbs and face, hypotonia and developmental delay). Her work continues to inform us about the physiological mechanisms for genetic risk factors that drive brain disorders related to neural circuit development.