February 1, 2011

How Neurons Make Connections In Developing Brain

How do the neurons (nerve cells) of the developing brain seek out and make the connections that are so crucial to formation of the final circuits in the brain of an adult?

The answers lie in the formation of the synapse, the critical junction where a neuron transfers information to another nerve cell or to muscles. That's where Dr. Benjamin R. Arenkiel, the first McNair Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine plans to concentrate his research as he begins his career in Houston.

Education set career path

Arenkiel, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics and neuroscience at BCM and a member of the faculty at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children's Hospital, began his academic career at St. Cloud University in Minnesota and did his graduate work at the University of Utah School of Medicine in the laboratory of Dr. Mario R. Capecchi, now a Nobel Laureate. His postdoctoral work as a fellow of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at Duke University Medical School took place in the laboratories of the late Dr. Lawrence C. Katz and Dr. Michael D. Ehlers.

His work with Capecchi focused on developmental genetics and at Duke, he added new interests in imaging and electrophysiology. Here, he plans to marry those interests to investigate how neurons in the olfactory system 'wire-up' in the developing and adult brain.

New approaches to look at newborn neurons

He hopes to use specially developed fluorescent markers and genetic techniques to watch the formation of synapses.

"It's a combination of my cellular and genetic backgrounds," he said. "The overlying biology is to use new approaches to look at newborn neurons to see how they make connections until they form a final circuit in the adult brain," said Arenkiel.

Rising stars

The McNair Scholars program identifies "rising stars" in four areas of biomedical research "“ neuroscience, juvenile diabetes, breast cancer and pancreatic cancer. The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation gave the college $100 million to begin a specialized faculty recruitment program, the McNair Scholars Program, which keys on collaboration.

"We offer financial support to outstanding scientists to entice them to come to Baylor and the Texas Medical Center," said Bob McNair. "One of the requirements is that the scientist must be willing to cooperate and share information with other scientists working on similar projects."

McNair, owner of the Houston Texans and a BCM board trustee since 1994, said the commitment to collaboration is a key component of the program he and his wife, Janice, funded through their foundation.

"Our reasoning is simple," he said. "Time is of the essence as we seek cures for cancer, juvenile diabetes and neuro-psychiatric disorders "“ and we don't need people reinventing the wheel. If we are successful, and I believe we will be, there will be plenty of credit to go around."


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