Neurexins and Neuroligins in Synapse Development

Messages are relayed through the nervous system by release of neurotransmitters from an axon of one neuron, which travel across the synaptic cleft and bind to receptors on a dendrite of the next neuron. The axon terminal, synaptic cleft and dendrite are collectively called the synapse. The formation of synapses—known as synaptogenesis—is the most central process in the development and maintenance of the nervous system. New synapses are formed during learning and memory and the maintenance of synapses can be altered in disease and drug-induced states. Katherine Walzak’s research is focusing on the process by which synapses form and change with experience. Specifically, she is exploring how neurotransmitter receptors on postsynaptic dendrites are aligned with neurotransmitter release sites on presynaptic axons, and how cell adhesion molecules influence synapse differentiation and localization. By understanding the mechanisms by which synapses forms and are maintained, this research may lead to further insights into disease that may involve the alteration of synaptogenesis, such as Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders.