Associate Professor of Neurobiology
The Shepherd lab
Neurobiology of Disease
B.Sc. 2002, University of Otago; Ph.D. 2007, Johns Hopkins University; Postdoctoral Fellow 2007-2012, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Synaptic plasticity, memory encoding, experience-dependent plasticity in visual cortex and neurological disorders
Brains have an amazing ability to learn and store information for long periods - in some cases, a lifetime. A major challenge in neuroscience is to understand how neuronal networks are sculpted by experience and how proteins/genes contribute to circuit modification. The goal of our research is to understand information storage, from the molecular level through in vivo neuronal networks and how these processes go awry in neurological disorders. My lab utilizes coordinated biochemical, cell biological, electrophysiological and imaging studies both in vitro and in vivo.
We recently discovered a novel mechanism of neuronal communication that resembles the life-cycle of retroviruses (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867417315040) . The neuronal gene Arc, a master regulator of synaptic plasticity and memory, contains a Gag retroviral homology domain that has conserved secondary structure with HIV-1 that is derived from a distinct family of retrotransposons. Arc protein self-assembles into viral-like capsids that are released from cells and carry RNA/proteins to neighboring cells. Our findings open up a new area of investigation in the cell biology of cell-to-cell communication, by revealing that some retrotransposon-derived genes retain the ability to form capsids that shuttle RNAs and proteins between cells.
Ongoing projects in the lab aim to dissect this new intercellular pathway that intersects diverse fields of biology that include virology, extracellular communication, evolutionary biology, gene delivery and neuroscience.
Other projects in the lab include:
- The synaptic engram - how networks of cells encode, store and retrieve information
- How experience sculpts the brain, using in vivo 2-photon imaging in the visual cortex
- The synaptic dysfunction that underlies neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's Disease and autism spectrum disorders
- Trafficking of neurotransmitter receptors at synapses