Many brain disorders are caused by disruptions at synapses, the junctions where neurons connect with other cells and communicate nerve impulses. Now Michael Higley, M.D., Ph.D., is shedding new light on these important connections by using advanced imaging tools to explore the physical and chemical properties of synapses.
Dr. Higley is a new assistant professor of neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. His laboratory opened in April 2010, supported in part by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) through a grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
Calling the ARRA grant "a huge benefit," Dr. Higley said, "The stimulus funds have enabled us to equip our lab with a variety of powerful tools and bring these to bear on our research. These funds have allowed us to set up what we need to push the envelope in our investigations."
Dr. Higley's research combines electrophysiological recordings with optical imaging of synaptic activity through two-photon microscopy, which allows scientists to look deeply into tissues and visualize individual cells at high resolution. His laboratory also uses optogenetics, an emerging field of research that can target specific brain cells, turning them on and off with pulses of light through genetic manipulation. "This approach allows us to examine very selectively the properties of previously inaccessible synapses," he said.
The technology, Dr. Higley explained, can advance our understanding of the neuronal underpinnings of normal cognitive function, such as attention, learning, and memory. It could also yield new insights into how perturbation of synaptic activity contributes to the cognitive dysfunction seen in Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Dr. Higley said he looks forward to conducting research as part of Yale’s interdepartmental Program in Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration and Repair (CNNR). Launched in 2006, the program brings together scientists studying basic aspects of neuronal cell biology with investigators focusing on neuronal disease. The multidisciplinary approach has helped foster “an environment where collaboration is strongly encouraged,” said Dr. Higley.
Photo Captions: Upper right: A cortical pyramidal neuron imaged through a two-photon microscope with fluorescence provided through a pipette (the cone in the bottom right). Image courtesy of Dr. Michael Higley; used with permission. Lower left: Dr.Michael Higley.
Last updated March 20, 2013