Doctor of Philosphy, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Neuroscience (2013)
Bachelor of Arts, New York University (2004)
Robert Malenka, Postdoctoral Faculty Sponsor
I am currently investigating specific circuits involved in social avoidance and other emotional behaviors. Through synapse-specific modulation, I hope to uncover how various glutamatergic inputs to the nucleus accumbens regulate the ability to "cope' with stress.
My long-term goals are to understand the distinct modes of plasticity present in different synaptic types, how these mechanisms encode experience to regulate behavior, and uncover what role they play in psychiatric disorders.
The brain's remarkable capacity to generate cognition and behavior is mediated by an extraordinarily complex set of neural interactions that remain largely mysterious. This complexity poses a significant challenge in developing therapeutic interventions to ameliorate psychiatric disease. Accordingly, few new classes of drugs have been made available for patients with mental illness since the 1950s. Optogenetics offers the ability to selectively manipulate individual neural circuit elements that underlie disease-relevant behaviors and is currently accelerating the pace of preclinical research into neurobiological mechanisms of disease. In this review, we highlight recent findings from studies that employ optogenetic approaches to gain insight into normal and aberrant brain function relevant to mental illness. Emerging data from these efforts offers an exquisitely detailed picture of disease-relevant neural circuits in action, and hints at the potential of optogenetics to open up entirely new avenues in the treatment of psychiatric disorders.
View details for DOI 10.1016/j.conb.2014.08.004
View details for Web of Science ID 000348337600002
View details for PubMedID 25215625
Mechanisms controlling release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the mesolimbic dopamine reward pathway remain unknown. We report that phasic optogenetic activation of this pathway increases BDNF amounts in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) of socially stressed mice but not of stress-naive mice. This stress gating of BDNF signaling is mediated by corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) acting in the NAc. These results unravel a stress context-detecting function of the brain's mesolimbic circuit.
View details for DOI 10.1038/nn.3591
View details for Web of Science ID 000329080000009
View details for PubMedID 24270188
Depression and anxiety disorders are associated with increased release of peripheral cytokines; however, their functional relevance remains unknown. Using a social stress model in mice, we find preexisting individual differences in the sensitivity of the peripheral immune system that predict and promote vulnerability to social stress. Cytokine profiles were obtained 20 min after the first social stress exposure. Of the cytokines regulated by stress, IL-6 was most highly up-regulated only in mice that ultimately developed a susceptible behavioral phenotype following a subsequent chronic stress, and levels remained elevated for at least 1 mo. We confirmed a similar elevation of serum IL-6 in two separate cohorts of patients with treatment-resistant major depressive disorder. Before any physical contact in mice, we observed individual differences in IL-6 levels from ex vivo stimulated leukocytes that predict susceptibility versus resilience to a subsequent stressor. To shift the sensitivity of the peripheral immune system to a pro- or antidepressant state, bone marrow (BM) chimeras were generated by transplanting hematopoietic progenitor cells from stress-susceptible mice releasing high IL-6 or from IL-6 knockout (IL-6(-/-)) mice. Stress-susceptible BM chimeras exhibited increased social avoidance behavior after exposure to either subthreshold repeated social defeat stress (RSDS) or a purely emotional stressor termed witness defeat. IL-6(-/-) BM chimeric and IL-6(-/-) mice, as well as those treated with a systemic IL-6 monoclonal antibody, were resilient to social stress. These data establish that preexisting differences in stress-responsive IL-6 release from BM-derived leukocytes functionally contribute to social stress-induced behavioral abnormalities.
View details for DOI 10.1073/pnas.1415191111
View details for PubMedID 25331895
It is well established that behavioral sensitization to cocaine is accompanied by increased spine density and AMPA receptor (AMPAR) transmission in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), but two major questions remain unanswered. Are these adaptations mechanistically coupled? And, given that they can be dissociated from locomotor sensitization, what is their functional significance? We tested the hypothesis that the guanine-nucleotide exchange factor Kalirin-7 (Kal-7) couples cocaine-induced AMPAR and spine upregulation and that these adaptations underlie sensitization of cocaine's incentive-motivational properties-the properties that make it "wanted." Rats received eight daily injections of saline or cocaine. On withdrawal day 14, we found that Kal-7 levels and activation of its downstream effectors Rac-1 and PAK were increased in the NAc of cocaine-sensitized rats. Furthermore, AMPAR surface expression and spine density were increased, as expected. To determine whether these changes require Kal-7, a lentiviral vector expressing Kal-7 shRNA was injected into the NAc core before cocaine exposure. Knocking down Kal-7 abolished the AMPAR and spine upregulation normally seen during cocaine withdrawal. Despite the absence of these adaptations, rats with reduced Kal-7 levels developed locomotor sensitization. However, incentive sensitization, which was assessed by how rapidly rats learned to self-administer a threshold dose of cocaine, was severely impaired. These results identify a signaling pathway coordinating AMPAR and spine upregulation during cocaine withdrawal, demonstrate that locomotor and incentive sensitization involve divergent mechanisms, and link enhanced excitatory transmission in the NAc to incentive sensitization.
View details for DOI 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1097-13.2013
View details for Web of Science ID 000321258000008
View details for PubMedID 23825406
Depression induces structural and functional synaptic plasticity in brain reward circuits, although the mechanisms promoting these changes and their relevance to behavioral outcomes are unknown. Transcriptional profiling of the nucleus accumbens (NAc) for Rho GTPase-related genes, which are known regulators of synaptic structure, revealed a sustained reduction in RAS-related C3 botulinum toxin substrate 1 (Rac1) expression after chronic social defeat stress. This was associated with a repressive chromatin state surrounding the proximal promoter of Rac1. Inhibition of class 1 histone deacetylases (HDACs) with MS-275 rescued both the decrease in Rac1 transcription after social defeat stress and depression-related behavior, such as social avoidance. We found a similar repressive chromatin state surrounding the RAC1 promoter in the NAc of subjects with depression, which corresponded with reduced RAC1 transcription. Viral-mediated reduction of Rac1 expression or inhibition of Rac1 activity in the NAc increases social defeat-induced social avoidance and anhedonia in mice. Chronic social defeat stress induces the formation of stubby excitatory spines through a Rac1-dependent mechanism involving the redistribution of synaptic cofilin, an actin-severing protein downstream of Rac1. Overexpression of constitutively active Rac1 in the NAc of mice after chronic social defeat stress reverses depression-related behaviors and prunes stubby spines. Taken together, our data identify epigenetic regulation of RAC1 in the NAc as a disease mechanism in depression and reveal a functional role for Rac1 in rodents in regulating stress-related behaviors.
View details for DOI 10.1038/nm.3090
View details for Web of Science ID 000316040700027
View details for PubMedID 23416703
Ventral tegmental area (VTA) dopamine neurons in the brain's reward circuit have a crucial role in mediating stress responses, including determining susceptibility versus resilience to social-stress-induced behavioural abnormalities. VTA dopamine neurons show two in vivo patterns of firing: low frequency tonic firing and high frequency phasic firing. Phasic firing of the neurons, which is well known to encode reward signals, is upregulated by repeated social-defeat stress, a highly validated mouse model of depression. Surprisingly, this pathophysiological effect is seen in susceptible mice only, with no apparent change in firing rate in resilient individuals. However, direct evidence--in real time--linking dopamine neuron phasic firing in promoting the susceptible (depression-like) phenotype is lacking. Here we took advantage of the temporal precision and cell-type and projection-pathway specificity of optogenetics to show that enhanced phasic firing of these neurons mediates susceptibility to social-defeat stress in freely behaving mice. We show that optogenetic induction of phasic, but not tonic, firing in VTA dopamine neurons of mice undergoing a subthreshold social-defeat paradigm rapidly induced a susceptible phenotype as measured by social avoidance and decreased sucrose preference. Optogenetic phasic stimulation of these neurons also quickly induced a susceptible phenotype in previously resilient mice that had been subjected to repeated social-defeat stress. Furthermore, we show differences in projection-pathway specificity in promoting stress susceptibility: phasic activation of VTA neurons projecting to the nucleus accumbens (NAc), but not to the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), induced susceptibility to social-defeat stress. Conversely, optogenetic inhibition of the VTA-NAc projection induced resilience, whereas inhibition of the VTA-mPFC projection promoted susceptibility. Overall, these studies reveal novel firing-pattern- and neural-circuit-specific mechanisms of depression.
View details for DOI 10.1038/nature11713
View details for Web of Science ID 000313871400038
View details for PubMedID 23235832