During the complex and intricately-timed sequence of nervous system development and maturation, significant and persistent disruptions to the dynamic regulatory process through genetic and environmental risks can result in neurodevelopmental disorders. Neuroscience research has contributed much to our understanding of early neural development in the embryonic and perinatal periods including neuronal specification, neuronal migration, axonal guidance/outgrowth, and synaptogenesis. The period from early post-natal life to young adulthood is equally critical for proper development of the mature brain, as extensive structural and behavioral plasticity are observed during these periods. However, much less is known about the molecular regulatory mechanisms underlying neuronal maturation during post-natal development. In the first part of my post-doctoral work, I developed and optimized a method to isolate single neuron types for genomics profiling. Using this method, in combination with the genetic amenability of the C. elegans system, I will profile the transcriptome and chromatin accessibility of single neuron types throughout early post-natal development to young adulthood (Aim 1).
In Aim 2, using the profiling data from Aim 1 as an entry point, I will take a 2-pronged approach to identify novel regulators of neuronal maturation. First, I will co-develop and implement bioinformatics tools to extract common cis-regulatory motifs from developmentally regulated genes and predict candidate transcriptional regulators. Second, using validated developmentally-regulated gene reporters in Aim 1, I will conduct unbiased forward genetic screens to identify novel regulators of neuronal maturation.
In Aim 3, I will use advanced neurotechnology tools to examine the role of environmental stimuli (sensory-induced neuron activity) on neuronal maturation. First, I will examine how acute and chronic inhibition of activity in target neurons, during different developmental windows, affects single-neuron developmental transcriptomes and chromatin accessibility. In addition, the interaction between pathways regulating neuronal maturation through environmentally-induced activity versus intrinsic genetic mechanisms will be examined using approaches as in Aim 2. The proposed research will increase our understanding of the genetic and environmental regulatory mechanisms underlying normal post-natal neurodevelopment, improve our understanding of the etiology of neurodevelopmental disorders, and reveal novel therapeutic targets. The training phase of the award, conducted in the laboratory of Dr. Oliver Hobert and under the co- mentorship of Dr. Harmen Bussemaker and Dr. Stavros Lomvardas at Columbia University, outlines a comprehensive plan for the acquisition of technical and professional skills that will enable my transition to an independent research position. The successful completion of this project will provide a platform for future experiments aimed at understanding gene-environment interplay in the transcriptional regulation of nervous system development and function. .

Public Health Relevance

Significant and persistent disruption to the dynamic gene regulatory process during neurodevelopment through genetic and environmental risks can lead to neural disorders such as Intellectual Disability (ID) or Autism Spectrum Disorders. The goal of this research proposal is to identify the transcriptional regulatory mechanisms by which intrinsic genetic factors and extrinsic environmental factors control post-embryonic neuronal maturation. This work will contribute to a novel understanding of neurodevelopmental disease vulnerability and will inform new therapeutic targets.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Career Transition Award (K99)
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National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Initial Review Group (CHHD)
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Henken, Deborah B
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Columbia University (N.Y.)
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New York
United States
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