The overall goal of my NS-supported research program is to understand the mechanisms that stabilize the function of central nervous system (CNS) microcircuits during experience- dependent plasticity and learning. Over the past ~20 years of NS support we discovered and characterized several forms of homeostatic plasticity, including synaptic scaling and intrinsic homeostatic plasticity, that are postulated to sense perturbations in mean neuronal activity, then bidirectionally adjust synaptic and cellular properties to keep activity within a set point range. Our recent work has focused on a) identifying the cellular and molecular mechanisms of these homeostatic forms of plasticity in order to bolster our mechanistic and functional understanding, and to generate tools that allow us to selectively block homeostatic plasticity in vivo; and b) to determine what aspect of neuronal activity is under homeostatic control in intact CNS circuits in vivo. We recently showed that the mean firing rates of neocortical pyramidal neurons in freely behaving animals return back to an individual baseline following prolonged perturbations to sensory drive, strongly supporting the idea that neocortical neurons homeostatically regulate their mean firing around an individual 'firing rate set point'. Such a process is theoretically important for preventing circuit hypo- or hyperexcitability during experience-dependent development, as well as to short-circuit the positive feedback nature of Hebbian plasticity rules that can degrade memory fidelity. We now have (or are developing) the tools to disrupt homeostatic plasticity and firing rate set points in vivo, allowing us to assess the impact of this disruption on network function and memory storage. The major goals of my NS- supported research program going forward are: 1) to determine how activity set points are built, and how individual neurons can have set points that are orders of magnitude different from each other; 2) to understand how multiple homeostatic mechanisms cooperate with each other to stabilize network activity in the face of profound perturbations; and 3) to test the role of synaptic scaling and intrinsic homeostatic plasticity in memory encoding and generalization. These studies will have important implications for our understanding of neurological disorders that arise from aberrant circuit excitability (epilepsy, autism-spectrum disorders). They may also provide a new avenue into understanding disorders such as PTSD that are likely to arise from excessive generalization during aversive learning.
Experience-dependent refinement and efficient memory storage in CNS circuits is thought to require homeostatic forms of plasticity, such as synaptic scaling and intrinsic plasticity, that stabilize overall neuronal activity by endowing individual neurons with a 'firing rate set point'. Here we will investigate the mechanisms and function of these set points, and ask how their loss impacts critical features of circuit function including memory stability. These studies will enhance our understanding of neurological disorders that arise from aberrant circuit excitability, and will provide a new avenue of investigation into disorders (such as PTSD) that arise from excessive generalization during aversive learning.