Like a detective zeroing in on the Mafia, Hideto Takahashi is piecing together clues to reveal how a family of genes may be the culprit of debilitating neuropsychiatric disorders.
In Takahashi’s genetic crime story, the victims are synapses, the basic units of communication in the brain. These tiny gaps between neurons either promote—called excitatory synapses—
or diminish—called inhibitory synapses—electrical and chemical connection in the brain cell network.
The suspects—six members of the Slitrk gene family—have been associated with obsessive compulsive disorder, autism, schizophrenia and Tourette’s syndrome. The rap sheet goes on.
A few years ago, a team led by UBC Psychiatry professor Ann Marie Craig developed a screen for the genes that promote the formation of synapses. Using a combination of fluorescence imaging, molecular biology and electrophysiology, Craig, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Neurobiology, deciphers how nerve cells communicate.
“A finely tuned balance of excitatory and inhibitory synapses is crucial for proper brain development and function,” says Craig, who is also a member of the Brain Research Centre at UBC and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute.
Building on Craig’s work, Takahashi, a postdoctoral researcher in UBC’s Department of Psychiatry, recently found that the gene called Slitrk2 promotes the formation of excitatory synapses, while other genes in the family appear to encourage the formation of inhibitory synapses.
He was recently given a Young Investigator Award by NARSAD: The Brain and Behavior Research Fund, of up to $60,000 over two years, to further define the roles played by other genes in the Slitrk family.
“Knowing which Slitrk gene plays what role in the formation of excitatory and inhibitory synapses will not only help us better understand what contributes to synapse balance, but provide valuable clues to other, similar genes that have also been associated with psychiatric disorders and behavioral abnormalities,” says Takahashi.
“Hideto is a very talented and hard-working researcher who has already identified multiple new genes that promote formation of synaptic connections,” says Craig.
“This kind of fundamental research that unites the molecular basis of brain development with the genetics of diseases will deepen our understanding of the mechanism that might cause psychiatric disorders and, I believe, ultimately lead to novel directed therapies.”