Epigenetics and Neural Plasticity Laboratory
The Neural Plasticity Laboratory investigates gene-environment interactions and experience-dependent plasticity in the healthy and diseased brain, using a variety of experimental approaches. This includes research using a model of Huntington’s disease (HD), a tandem repeat disorder, where we are following up our discoveries regarding the beneficial effects of environmental enrichment (enhanced cognitive stimulation and physical activity) and exercise, as well as depression and dementia-like symptoms associated with abnormalities of brain plasticity. Furthermore, we recently discovered that chronic stress can accelerate onset of HD, and are investigating these neurotoxic effects of stress in HD and other brain disorders.
Many neurological and psychiatric disorders have their origins in abnormal maturation of the brain, including the billions of neurons exquisitely connected by trillions of synapses. We are also investigating how genetic and environmental factors combine to cause specific disorders of brain development and cognition, including schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). We are interested in the mechanisms whereby specific genes regulate maturation of the brain and are dynamically regulated by interaction with the environment in conditions like ASD and schizophrenia.
Our research links data at behavioural and cognitive levels to underlying cellular and molecular mechanisms. We use a variety of behavioural tools, including automated touchscreen testing of cognition and high-throughput data analysis of vocalization and communication, that are directly translatable to clinical tests. We are establishing the extent to which experience-dependent plasticity, including adult neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity, can modulate these behavioural and cognitive endophenotypes, in models with targeted genome editing. This cellular level of understanding is linked, in turn, to molecular mechanisms, including epigenetics, transcriptomics and proteomics.
Based on this research, and the identification of key target molecules, we are also exploring the concept of ‘enviromimetics’, therapeutics that mimic or enhance the beneficial effects of cognitive stimulation and physical exercise. One goal is to develop such therapeutic agents to help reduce the personal and societal burdens of devastating brain disorders such as schizophrenia, HD and dementia.
A glimpse at our researchInvestigation of paternal influence on offspring mental healthUtilising Touchscreen technology for preclinical modeling of attention in autism spectrum disorderInvestigating social communication in the Neuroligin 3 mouse model of AutismInvestigating the inherited paternal influence on offspring cognition and behaviourExperience-dependent plasticity modulating cognitive deficits in schizophreniaGene-environment interactions modulating dementia and depression in a tandem repeat disorder
The Division of Behavioural Neuroscience focuses on the use and development of models that reflect aspects of human disorders such as addiction, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, autism and neurodegenerative conditions such as Huntington’s disease. The Cognitive Neuroscience group additionally studies cognitive disorders caused by diseases such as stroke (cerebrovascular disease), Alzheimer's disease and other dementias from a clinical perspective.