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ARRA @ Work: Haining Zhong and Tianyi Mao – A Marriage of Synapses and Circuits

Hollywood is not the only place to find power couples. The scientific profession has them too. Husband and wife Haining Zhong, Ph.D., and Tianyi Mao, Ph.D., are emerging leaders in the field of neuroscience. Recently, they both joined the Vollum Institute, a privately endowed research arm of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.  Their appointments were supported by a NINDS grant made possible through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Drs. Zhong and Mao met as students in the neuroscience graduate program at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1999. They moved from there to productive postdoctoral appointments at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, NY, and then at Janelia Farms, a think tank and research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute located in Ashburn, Va.

Photo of Dr. Mao

Despite their shared lives and career paths, their research at the Vollum will take them in different directions.

Dr. Mao will focus on creating a detailed circuit map of the basal ganglia - a group of structures that are damaged in Parkinson's disease and Huntington's disease. "Classic behavior studies showed that the basal ganglia play a key role in many motor behaviors and motor diseases. We know the macro-circuits in the basal ganglia relatively well, but not how individual cells work together in micro-circuits," she said.

She will map the connections between genetically defined cell types in the basal ganglia, in part through the use of optogenetics. This technology involves the use of genetics to insert light-sensitive proteins into nerve cells, so that the cells' activity can be controlled by flashes of light. By using a tightly controlled laser, Dr. Mao will be able to activate or deactivate distinct groups of nerve cells, and determine how they fit into the circuitry of the basal ganglia.

Photo of Dr. Zhong

In his lab, Dr. Zhong will focus on the molecular machinery at synapses - the sites where nerve cells communicate with each other. A vast number of proteins are needed to relay signals across a single synapse and to determine how those signals will be routed. These synaptic proteins can also influence changes in synaptic strength, and thus have powerful effects on learning and memory.

Dr. Zhong aims to understand the precise choreography of synaptic proteins - where they are located at the synapse, when and where they move during synaptic activity, and how their movements affect the function of the synapse. He will address these issues through a combination of electrophysiology (recording the electrical activity at synapses) and state-of-the-art microscopy techniques that will allow him to peer inside the complex architecture of nerve cells.

The research "will open up a whole new direction and new possibilities for understanding synaptic biology," Dr. Zhong said.

Last updated December 23, 2013