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Dopamine Signaling in Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Addiction

Dopamine (DA) signaling in the brain is requisite for a number of key behaviors, including motivation, reward, motor function, and learning. Multiple neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders exhibit aberrant DA signaling, including addiction, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Parkinson's disease, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Despite the association of these disorders with dopaminergic dysfunction, the molecular mechanisms and neuronal circuits involved in these processes are not well defined. In order to investigate these pressing questions, we leverage a variety of approaches that span from molecules to behavior in mouse models, including in vivo monitoring of neuronal activity and DA signaling using genetically encoded tools. We currently are pursuing multiple lines of investigation:

Regulation of the Cocaine-Sensitive DA Transporter (DAT):  Our laboratory is interested in the circuit- and molecular-specific mechanisms that regulate DA signaling and DA-dependent behaviors. Once released, extracellular DA is temporally and spatially restricted by presynaptic DA reuptake facilitated by the DA transporter (DAT). In addition to its central role in basal synaptic transmission, DAT is the primary target for addictive psychostimulants, cocaine and amphetamine, as well as therapeutic psychoactive drugs, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and bupropion (Wellbutrin/Zyban).  These agents block DAT activity and thereby enhance extracellular DA levels and drive dysfunction in DA-depndent behaviors. 

Given DAT’s importance in DAergic neurotransmission and as a psychoactive drug target, cellular mechanisms that impact DAT function are likely to have significant impact on DA signaling and neuropsychiatric disorders.  Multiple DAT coding variants have been identified in ADHD and autism patients, further supporting that altered DAT function is linked to significant behavioral consequences.  Work from our lab investigates the cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate DAT.  Endocytic trafficking dynamically controls DAT plasma membrane availability, and a variety of cellular signaling pathways and psychostimulant drugs rapid alter DAT trafficking, surface expression and function. We have identified multiple key players that govern DAT trafficking.  Using a variety of cutting edge approaches, such as viral-mediated gene expression, gene silencing (RNAi), optogenetics and chemogenetics, we are investigating how DAT regulation impacts DA neurotransmission and DA-associated behaviors.

Role of modulatory glutamate signaling in motor function, novelty, and reward: Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, but also has a modulatory role by signaling through metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs). Recent work from our laboratory revealed that selective expression of mGluR5 in DA neurons is required for several DA-dependent behaviors and DA signaling. However, the circuit- and mechanistic-specific underpinnings of these processes have not been elucidated. Using a novel conditional knockout model, we are leveraging several intersectional approaches to determine how DAergic mGluR5 impacts DA neuron function and DA-dependent behaviors.

Post Docs

I am seeking an accomplished and motivated Ph.D. electrophysiologist to study the impact of dopamine transporter trafficking and regulation on dopaminergic neurotransmission. This is an exciting opportunity to integrate state-of-art optogenetic, chemogenetic and transgenic mouse approaches to link molecular mechanisms to synaptic physiology. Candidates will have a strong track record of productivity from their doctoral research, with excellent verbal and written skills, with expertise in ex vivo brain slice electrophysiological approaches. Interested candidates should forward a cover letter, curriculum vitae, and the names and contact information of three references via e-mail to:  

Haley E. Melikian, Ph.D.

Brudnick Neuropsychiatric Research Institute

UMASS Medical School

haley.melikian@umassmed.edu

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