"Re-examining Information Processing in the Mouse Visual Thalamus"
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Chinfei Chen, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Neurology
Harvard Medical School
Research Associate in Neurology
Boston Children's Hospital
Environmental experiences can have a powerful impact on the development of synapses and circuits in the brain. Understanding the physiological basis of brain plasticity is a question of significant interest both for basic neuroscience and improving our understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders. Our hope is that the knowledge gained from our studies will inform new therapeutic approaches for these devastating disorders. The Chen lab seeks to understand the mechanisms that underlie synaptic plasticity in the young and mature mammalian central nervous system. Our studies have focused on the thalamus, a brain region that regulates consciousness, sleep, alertness and the integration of sensory information. One area of deep interest is the establishment and optimization of thalamic circuits during development in this region. We have identified and characterized processes important for the refinement of the retinogeniculate synapse, the connection between neurons in the eye and the visual thalamus, during development as multiple inputs are eliminated and remaining synaptic inputs strengthened. In addition, we have uncovered a critical period at this synapse during which wiring of connections can be influenced by experience. In another line of research, we are interested in understanding the logic of how specific visual features (information lines) are constructed, integrated and organized in the mature thalamus, and how experience influences this process during development. Our research may have significant implications for our understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, epilepsy and neuropsychiatric disorders.