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GAO LAB (Laboratory of Dr. Wen-Jun Gao)
Research Interests

• Functional plasticity in the juvenile and adolescent prefrontal cortex and cognitive functions associated with this cortical region
• Cellular and synaptic mechanisms of neuronal network activity in the prefrontal cortex
• Molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying synaptic transmission and monoaminergic regulation of the prefrontal function
• Neurobiology of psychiatric disorders associated with the prefrontal cortex and limbic systems, such as schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD

Research Summary

The cerebral cortex, especially the prefrontal cortex, is the most complex brain region in the central nervous system. Elucidating its diverse functions represents a major challenge in neurobiology. We are interested in the neuronal mechanisms underlying the synaptic signaling and monoaminergic regulation in the prefrontal cortical circuitry, as well as the critical issues involving neuropathology of mental disorders and other neurological diseases. Specifically, we are taking the advantages of in vivo and in vitro preparations to examine the neuronal signaling in both normal animals and clinical models of psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD.

Work in the laboratory is currently focused on the following projects: 1) catecholaminergic (dopamine and norepinephrine) regulation of synaptic transmissions and local circuitry in the prefrontal cortex; 2) how high-risk genes or epigenetic factors associated with schizophrenia (and other psychiatric disorders such as ADHD and autism) affect the development of prefrontal cortex; 3) developmental alteration of NMDA receptor in the prefrontal neurons and its roles in the schizophrenia pathological process; 4) psychostimulant actions on the synaptic plasticity and trafficking of glutamatergic receptors.

Our research involves a variety of morphological, physiological, pharmacological, and molecular approaches designed to elucidate the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying the prefrontal function. Morphological studies include single-cell labeling, neuronal tract tracing, neuronal reconstruction, and immunocytochemistry. Physiological, pharmacological and molecular approaches include multiple whole-cell patch clamp recordings, optogenetics, AAV-DREADD viral injection, drug administrations, techniques for epigenetic analysis (histone modification, CHiP-seq,  and DNA methylation), western blotting, laser capture and real-time PCR in fresh brain tissues, acute brain slices, and cell culture preparations. These multidisciplinary approaches enable us to conduct productive research projects associated with the prefrontal cortex and catecholamine systems that are highly relevant to neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and ADHD.