Lecturer in Neuroscience
Our brains are fundamental to our very nature - governing processes such as learning, memory and language, and central to these actions is a huge array of cells whose diversity has proven to be an obstacle to our understanding of brain function and conversely dysfunction. At present we define two broad categories of nerve cell in the forebrain: excitatory pyramidal cells, and local inhibitory nerve cells termed interneurons. Although the latter form only a minor component of the total number of cells in the brain, they are critical to normal function and deficits in their action have been implicated in a range of neurological conditions including schizophrenia and autism. Our approach is to harness the power of genetics to interrogate the contribution of interneurons to emergent brain activity. The purpose: to gain an understanding of the simple, early brain that will not only establish a set of ground rules for the more complex mature brain, but also provide the foundation for a better understanding of interneuron-related neurological conditions. This approach has proven hard to pursue in the past due to the dynamic nature of the developing brain and the difficulty in targeting specific cells. To overcome this, we take advantage of genes crucial for cell identity. Our recent findings have revealed that the fate of a cell is specified early on in the embryo in response to a genetic code, which acts through a cascade of checkpoints to generate the diversity present in the adult. We have begun to crack this code and are now able to pinpoint where and when interneuron subtypes are born. Furthermore we can use the code to identify the same cells time and time again, and thereby target our research more effectively. We hope to use our strategy to follow discrete cohorts of cell, unravel their contribution to early brain function and reveal how and when these cells are directed to assume a particular role. By resolving this we will have the cornerstone to probe the newborn brain further and understand how a simple layer of cells in the embryo matures into the amazingly complex adult brain.