Synapse, a specialized zone of contact between two neurons, is the site at which communication takes place in the brain. Although neurons have reached the state of terminal differentiation, synapses continually form and are eliminated depending on the pattern of neural activity. The goal of our research is to delineate how experience in the form of synaptic activity shapes the structural organization of central synapses, and in turn, determines the connectivity pattern of neural networks. We hope to provide a molecular link for understanding processes that are thought to involve controlled changes in neural connectivity in the adult brain, such as memory consolidation. Our research program focuses on the structure-function relationship of synapses at three levels. The first goal is to understand how the state of synapse adhesion regulates the efficacy of synaptic transmission. We focus on the mechanisms by which integrins, cadherin-catenin complex, and signaling pathways that link to them modify neurotransmitter release and postsynaptic receptor activity to regulate synaptic plasticity. Second, we investigate how synapse adhesion proteins in turn, mediate activity-induced remodeling of pre and postsynaptic organization. Third, we address the nature of inter-synaptic organization with the premise that individual synapses are not autonomous but coordination between synapses plays an important role in shaping and maintaining functional neural networks. We study the axonal and dendritic mechanisms by which neighboring synapses communicate and regulate their synaptic strengths.
Synapses form at contact points between the dendrites of a cultured hippocampal neuron expressing YFP-actin (yellow) and axons from a CFP-actin expressing neurons (blue) whose cell bodies are present outside the field of view.
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