Several labs in Biological Sciences have neuroscience focused research projects. The scientific questions tackled by our labs range from mechanisms of eye development, evolution, and function in mollusks, to establishing neural connectivity and function in zebrafish and mice, to function and regeneration of the adult nervous system in rodents, to how human diseases impact neural connectivity. Each research group engages undergraduate students, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and technical staff in our programs, so please contact the individual faculty if you are interested in joining us:
Dr. Davis uses mouse model systems to study questions in developmental biology and organogenesis, including pituitary gland and neural crest formation. Congenital malformations in both mice and humans that disrupt normal pituitary gland organogenesis result in neuroendocrine deficiencies, while mutations that disrupt neural crest development result in syndromes with neurological deficits, such as Waardenburg syndrome or Hirschsprung’s disease. Research in the Davis lab seeks to understand the molecular pathways necessary for proper development of these critical tissues.
Dr. Lizarraga’s research aims to understand the basic molecular and cellular mechanisms that contribute to neuronal circuit formation. Altered circuit formation during cortical development has been proposed as a major cause of neurodevelopmental disorders including autism, epilepsy and intellectual disability. They use a combination of genome edited and patient derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) as well as mouse models to address the endosomal signaling mechanisms underlying neuronal morphogenesis and synaptogenesis during development.
Dr. Poulain uses the zebrafish to understand how neuronal connections are established, and how errors in this wiring process can lead to human diseases. During development, neurons extend axons that navigate towards their target by responding to attractive and repulsive cues. Connections are further refined by degeneration or pruning of misguided axons. The mechanisms underlying degeneration are also relevant to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease or ALS. The Poulain lab uses a unique combination of genetic, embryological and live imaging approaches to observe these processes directly in the embryo in vivo.
Dr. Smith studies how the motor protein dynein is regulated in mammals, with recent emphasis on two dynein binding proteins, LIS1 and NUDEL (Ndel1). These proteins are particularly critical in the developing brain, where their interaction with dynein regulates many processes, including nuclear envelope breakdown, mitotic spindle orientation, neuronal migration and axon growth. They use primary cell culture and mouse models to define signaling pathways and protein complexes that modulate motor protein activity. A current interest is to define the dynein regulatory mechanisms controlling axonal transport in post-migratory neurons.
Dr. Speiser uses an integrative and comparative approach to study how visual systems in diverse animals function and how and why they have evolved. Current work in the Speiser lab focuses on the morphology, physiology, and evolution of the mirror-based eyes of scallops (Mollusca:Bivalvia) and the unique shell-eyes of chitons (Mollusca: Polyplacophora). Further, certain lineages of animals contain taxa with eyes that vary considerably in their complexity and the Speiser lab is using these separate instances of eye evolution to learn about the co-evolution of spatial vision, new behaviors, and complex brains.
Dr. Twiss studies molecular mechanisms of axon growth and function, with the objective of finding means to improve repair of injured and diseased neurons. They are interested in the spatial and temporal regulation of gene expression, focusing on post-transcriptional (mRNA transport and translational regulation) and post-translational mechanisms that modulate protein levels and function locally in neuronal processes. These mechanisms contribute both developmental and regenerative growth of nerves.