My lab focuses on understanding the mechanisms responsible for initiating and ending windows of time called ‘critical periods’ in the brain, when our brain cells (neurons) are phenomenally ‘plastic’. This plasticity allows our neurons to recover from injury, as well as fundamentally enhances our ability to learn new skills and tasks (e.g. speaking a language or playing piano) during these critical periods in our development (i.e. when we are children). My lab uses the lessons we are learning about the cellular and molecular mechanisms that influence the beginning and end of these critical periods as a way to enhance brain plasticity when we need it as adults, for example after traumatic brain injury, stroke, or Alzheimer’s disease.
Examples of Current Research Projects in Our Lab
1. Improving Brain Recovery After Stroke
Strokes represent a leading cause of death in the U.S. and in Pierce County. There is a strong link between the degree of neuronal (brain cells) connection remodeling, and the degree of functional stroke recovery. In an animal model of stroke, stimulation of specific connections underlying our ability to process information from nearly all of our senses, called thalamocortical (TC) synapses, improves function after stroke. My lab is attempting to determine what makes specific TC synapses ‘resilient’ after stroke, in order to design targeted therapeutic interventions for stroke recovery.
Please see a recent 5-minute video describing this project here:
2. Determining how Neurons Maintain Homeostasis in Health & Disease
Neurons from people with a variety of developmental brain disorders, from epilepsy to autism, display inappropriate levels of activity. That is, these neurons cannot properly maintain their own activity levels – a phenomenon called homeostasis – in the face of changing environmental stimulation. This situation may be responsible for hyper-excitable neurons (i.e. epileptic activity) and inappropriate neuronal circuit function (e.g. hypersensitivity in autism). We are investigating whether the appropriate regulation of specific proteins (called “GRIP” proteins) at neuronal synapses are responsible for the ability of our brain cells to maintain activity-level homeostasis, and how this dysfunction in these proteins might lead to disease.
3. Discovering How Brains Reconnect After Acute Injury
Our brains have an amazing ability to make new connections and adapt to a changing environment during critical periods in our childhood, however we progressively lose this capacity in adulthood. Interestingly, the brain uses similar mechanisms to reconnect itself after an acute injury, creating ‘critical periods for recovery’ after an acute injury or stroke when rehabilitation seems to have a maximal effect. Our lab is investigating what makes these critical periods for recovery special, how brain cells reconnect during these brief windows in time after injury, and how we might be able to enhance recovery to improve functional outcomes for people with acute traumatic brain injuries.