Current Research and Scholarly Interests
Human brain development and maintenance is orchestrated by a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Our research examines how neural stem cells respond to these cues to add and integrate new neurons into functional circuits.
NEURAL STEM CELLS IN DEVELOPMENT: Our studies of neurogenesis in the developing brain focus on the influence of maternal health or illness on fetal brain development. In mice, even mild maternal illness during early pregnancy can alter stem cell activity in the developing fetal brain. This leads to subtle changes in social behavior and cognition reminiscent of autism. Prior epidemiological studies have noted that autoimmune events, allergies, or infections during pregnancy may increase the risk of autism in the child. Our ongoing research focuses on genetic risk factors for autism that may exacerbate the effects of maternal illness on fetal brain development.
NEURAL STEM CELLS IN THE ADULT: Our studies of stem cells in the adult focus on the hippocampus, one of the few areas where neurogenesis naturally continues throughout life. We have found that this region contains a unique arrangement of cells and signals that instruct stem cells to generate new neurons. Our goal is to determine if manipulating these signals might augment neurogenesis and enhance stem cell mediated CNS repair.
STEM CELLS TO STUDY CNS INJURY AND DISEASE: Using information gained from studying neural stem cells in development and in the adult, we have been able to reconstruct the conditions of neurogenesis in the Petri dish. We are now able to use human embryonic stem cells and non-embryonic induced pluripotent stem cells to generate several types of human neurons, including those lost in Parkinson’s disease.
Pluripotent stem cells from patients who suffer from neurological disorders promise to be fundamentally important tools for identifying disease mechanisms or for providing neurons for repair. Understanding how new neurons are produced, and more importantly integrated, is critical for guiding efforts to restore function. With sufficient insights into the native control of neurogenesis, it may be possible to ameliorate the devastating effects of neurodevelopmental disease, injury, or aging-related disorders such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.