Our brain has a language of its own. At the core of its complex functions is the cell-to-cell communication occurring between and among neurons and astrocytes, which use an alphabet composed of a myriad secreted signaling molecules, including neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, hormones etc. Understanding the chemical language of the brain is a goal of fundamental importance, as many of these signaling molecules or the cellular receptors that relay their signals, are involved in diseases of the nervous system and are potential targets of pharmaceuticals that could restore physiological brain functions. Towards this goal, an important first step is to decipher the associations between animal behavior, neural activity, and the precise spatial and temporal dynamics of these secreted molecules.
To aid our understanding of neural communication, along with continuous improvements in neuroimaging technologies, a range of new molecular tools needs to be developed and deployed. Genetically encoded fluorescent sensors, such as the widely utilized calcium sensors GCaMPs, occupy the center stage, due to their ideal properties for in vivo imaging.
Standing on the shoulders of these giants, recent developments by us and others led to the first genetically encoded indicators for dopamine, a key neurotransmitter best known for its roles in reward and motivation.
Our group is interested in continuing the optimization and expansion of this molecular neurotechnology toolbox, to shine a new light on the in vivo dynamics of diverse neuromodulatory molecules involved in neural communication. These new tools will in turn promote a more complete understanding of the fundamental workings of the brain, both during natural behavior or diseased states.