Cortical Mechanisms of Perceptual and Cognitive Development
How much of our behavior and its disorders are determined by our genes and by our environment? This nature-nurture debate has continued for centuries by both philosophers and scientists. We now know our behavior reflects neural circuits sculpted by experience during “critical periods” in postnatal life. Such heightened plasticity declines into adulthood, often limiting recovery of function. On the other hand, the adult brain needs stability. Failed stabilization can disrupt circuit computations by allowing modification by undesirable information, which may lead to mental disorders. How does the brain solve this stability-plasticity dilemma? The goal of our lab is to identify the mechanisms of developmental critical periods to establish (1) perception and (2) cognition relevant to neuro-developmental and psychiatric disorders. Our strategy is to use visual system, a premier model of critical period for cortical plasticity, to discover molecular/ circuit mechanisms, and then apply these mechanisms as unique tools to dissect more complicated critical periods for cognitive behaviors such as attention and social cognition. We are an active member of Center for Neurotechnology and Behavior and Center for Affective Neuroscience at Mount Sinai.
Experience-dependent Perceptual Development
Experience-dependent cortical plasticity is heightened during developmental critical periods but declines into adulthood, posing a major challenge to recovery of function following injury or disease later in life. Our research aims to identify the mechanisms of experience-dependent cortical plasticity. Using visual system, a premier model of critical period, we take an integrated approach, combining molecular, anatomical, imaging, electrophysiological methodologies (e.g. in vivo viral gene transfer, optogenetics, chemogenetics, and two-photon time lapse imaging). We also take translational bioinformatics approach to identify pro-plasticity drugs and anti-plastic perturbations. Our study would have direct implications for Amblyopia, a condition with limited adult-applicable treatment affecting 2–5% of the human population, but also for brain injury repair, sensory recovery, and the treatment of neurodevelopmental disorders.
Prefrontal Cortex-dependent Cognitive Development
Mechanisms driving critical period circuit development are well described in sensory cortex—but poorly characterized for prefrontal cortex dependent cognitive behaviors. Impaired prefrontal cortical connectivity is increasingly identified in a host of several neuropsychiatric disorders that coincides with this protracted developmental period. A second major goal of our research is to examine to what extent a mechanism regulating the critical period for visual cortex development also modulates maturation of prefrontal cortex-dependent cognitive functions such as attentional behavior, and social cognition. We aim to identify the developmental regulatory mechanism of cognitive function from the molecular, circuit to the behavioral level. Identified circuit-associated mechanisms would promote translation of our basic research findings to clinical research to improve diagnosis, prevention and treatment of neuro-developmental disorders.