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Linking genetics and cell physiology to behaviour

Research in this theme is conducted mainly in the departments of Pharmacology, Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics (DPAG) and the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour. There are also strong links with the MRC Functional Genomics Unit and the MRC Brain Network Dynamics Unit. Working together these researchers have made significant advances into understanding how the interplay between genes, proteins and cells, as well as the networks formed by neurons, contribute to the behaviour of an organism.

Recent developments include the creation of the Gatsby-funded Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour. This centre leads the world in the use of optogenetics to study how neuronal circuits control functions including behaviours. Another recent development is the creation of the Wellcome Trust-funded Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute. This aims to understand the genetic and cellular pathways regulating sleep and how dysfunction of these systems may lead to central nervous system disorders.

Research highlights include:

  • Demonstrating that individual behaviour may be traced back to transposon (jumping genes) induced genetic alterations in the brain
  • Discovering neuronal network mechanisms underpinning memory and spatial learning
  • Finding that descending projections from the brain’s cortex mediate auditory learning
  • Identifying functional presynaptic NMDA type glutamate receptors in the hippocampus and showing how motivation and memory are integrated to drive behaviour.

There is a strong emphasis on translational research to deliver practical solutions to health problems. To this end, the identification of abnormal brain oscillations in an in vivo model of Parkinson’s disease and of compensatory mechanisms for hearing loss in infancy have suggested a possible surgical solution for Parkinson’s and a therapeutic approach for treating children with ‘glue ear’. In another highly innovative advance, researchers have shown that exosomes (cell-derived vesicles) can be used to deliver RNA molecules to the brain. This has the potential to revolutionise the treatment of neuronal diseases with RNA drugs, by providing a non-immunogenic delivery method.    

Our team