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Characterizing the roles of synapse organizers in mediating synaptic function and brain-based diseases

Principal Investigator:
  • Hong Lu, University of British Columbia
  • Shireen & Edna Marcus Foundation

Project Overview

The human brain is made up of neural circuits that are thought to underlie all brain function. These circuits are made up of contact points called synapses where individual nerve cells communicate with each other. For many years, scientists have been working to shed light on how nerve cells transmit information to each other, as well as the molecules involved in this process. In order for information to be delivered efficiently, or at all, proper synapse development has to take place. Synapse development is a process mediated by the binding of cell surface molecules located on the outer borders of both the nerve cell transmitting signals, and the nerve cell receiving them. The binding of these cell surface molecules, which have been coined ‘synapse organizing molecules’, acts as an anchor that physically glues the synapse together. In addition, depending on which synapse organizers are partnered up, certain properties will be conferred to that synapse. For example, certain binding configurations will give rise to synapses that release excitatory signals, whereas other ones will lead to the development of synapses that release inhibitory signals. This is especially important given that aberrant synaptic development has been emerging as a significant factor that underlies altered neuronal function in complex neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder. Moreover, little was known about mechanisms regulating the functions of these synapse organizers until recently. Our lab has discovered a process essential to the binding between many of these synaptic molecules and in turn, proper synapse development. Thus, my research is geared towards further functional characterization of synapse organizing molecules to develop a therapy to alleviate the brain-based defects in those suffering from mental disorders.