Molecular mechanisms of neural circuit function
Dr Mario de Bono
Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria), Austria
Our brain contains an awe-inspiring 1,011 interconnected neurons. Understanding how this structure works is daunting. Fortunately, the molecular machines that make our brains work are often found in simpler animals, like the worm Caenorhabditis elegans. This experimentally tractable animal can help us identify and understand these tiny mechanisms.
Animals respond to threats by changing behaviour. We isolated hundreds of mutant worms that fail to respond to a particular threat. These mutants each have defects in one protein required for the threat-responsive circuit to function. I want to investigate the function of these proteins and how this circuit works. A subset of proteins defines an interleukin-17 signalling pathway, and show this pro-inflammatory cytokine can also be a neuromodulator. Some appear to help assemble the ion channels and G-protein-coupled receptors that mediate communication between neurons.
A molecular understanding of neural circuits will help us treat psychiatric illness and age-related mental decline.