The Cell Biology of Neurons—how these specialized cells develop their branched morphology, how they transport signals, and how neurobiological mutations impact human disease—is the topic of a Symposium to be held Monday, December 4, at 8:00 am during the 2017 ASCB|EMBO Meeting.

Understanding the molecular mechanisms involved in neural circuit assembly is the primary research focus of the laboratory of cell biologist and neuroscientist Kang Shen, Stanford University/HHMI. His talk, “Ligands, Receptors and Signaling Mechanisms for Sensory Dendrite Morphogenesis,” will shed light on the array of molecular mechanisms involved in dendrite morphogenesis.

Shen’s research interest is to answer the key cell biological questions about the development and maintenance of neural circuits. His laboratory is helping to unravel the mechanisms of synaptic specificity and synapse assembly, and more recently Shen has been investigating the mechanisms of axonal transport, neuronal cytoskeletal polarity, and dendrite branching.

For his talk “Sorting Out Polarized Transport in Neurons,” Lukas Kapitein, a biophysicist from Utrecht University in The Netherlands, will discuss intracellular transport in neurons and the way in which the selective transport to either axons or dendrites is guided by the organization of the microtubule cytoskeleton.

“We have recently introduced novel methodology to control neuronal transport with light, which also demonstrated that several motor proteins can move very selectively to either axons or dendrites,” Kapitein said. “To understand how different microtubule plus end–directed motors can have such varying preferences, we have also developed a methodology to super-resolve the neuronal microtubule cytoskeleton.”

Kapitein’s novel approach, called motor-PAINT, uses extremely precise nanometric tracking of motor proteins to super-resolve microtubules and determine their orientation. “This has revealed that the microtubule array in dendrites is much more organized than previously anticipated,” he said.

Christopher Walsh, chief of the Division of Genetics and Genomics at Boston Children’s Hospital and neurobiologist in the departments of Pediatrics and Neurology at Harvard Medical School, says the role of “somatic” mutations (or those arising during prenatal development) in human disease is not well understood. His talk, “Somatic Mutations and Genetic Diversity in the Human Cerebral Cortex,” will address the challenge.

“We don’t understand the potential role of genomic variation as a source of normal neuronal diversity,” said Walsh who leads the newly created Allen Discovery Center for Human Brain Evolution, a joint initiative of Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “Analysis of blood DNA with high coverage panel sequencing suggests that greater than 25% of undiagnosed patients with brain malformations show causative mosaic mutations in known genes,” he said. Walsh’s research has implications for patients with epileptic brain malformations, autism spectrum disorders, and genetic disorders that result in advanced neurodegeneration.

Mary Spiro

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Science Writer and Social Media Manager.