Synapse assembly and plasticity

In order to combat neurological disease and mental illness, a greater understanding of how the brain functions at the molecular and cellular level is needed. If we can learn how nerve cells form connections during development, we can develop therapies for regenerating connections following injury. Dr. Ann Marie Craig is leading an effort to understand how nerve cells form and modify synaptic connections. Her group uses a combination of fluorescence imaging, molecular biology, and electrophysiology to investigate how nerve cells communicate. By studying nerve cells growing in a dish, the scientists have already begun to identify molecular signals on the surface of nerve cells that induce contacting partners to form a synaptic connection. Mutations in one of these molecular cues has recently been linked to autism. Dr. Craig and her team are also studying how neurotransmitter receptors are localized and modified to control the strength of synaptic signaling between nerve cells. Given that synapses are the basic units of communication in the brain, the knowledge gained from understanding synapse development and modification has broad implications for the treatment of all neurological diseases and mental illnesses.