McKnight Fellow – Helen Lai, Ph.D. 

Helen Lai, Ph.D., received her bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Cornell University and her Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, under the guidance of Lily Y. Jan, Ph.D. Dr. Lai studied the structure and gating mechanisms of potassium channels during her graduate training.

While a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Jane E. Johnson, Ph.D., Professor of Neuroscience at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dr. Lai studied the transcriptional mechanisms that specify different types of neurons during development of the spinal cord. For the McKnight Fellowship, her research builds on her expertise developed during her training period to focus on understanding the underlying circuits that generate somatosensory behavior.

Somatosensation consists of three main sensory modalities: nociception (thermal sensation/pain), mechanosensation (touch), and proprioception (sense of limb and body position). Our understanding of how these senses are relayed through the dorsal spinal cord to the supraspinal regions is rapidly progressing due to the advent of multiple genetic manipulations and optogenetic techniques in mice.

Using a combination of molecular, electrophysiological, and behavioral methods, Dr. Lai hopes to understand the circuits that form the basis of somatosensory behavior, how they integrate somatosensory information, how they form their connections, and what plastic changes may occur upon differential sensory input. Dr. Lai is currently focusing on a novel proprioceptive circuit that is relayed through the spinal cord in ways not previously known.

Dr. Lai has consistently received funding throughout her training with an American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellowship and a Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Postdoctoral Fellowship. The McKnight Fellowship allows her to create an independent research program and forge collaborations as an independent investigator.

Selected Publications

Lai H.C., Meredith D.M., and Johnson J.E. bHLH Factors in neurogenesis and neuronal subtype specification. (2013). Developmental Neuroscience: A Comprehensive Reference, Volume 1, Elsevier Limited, Oxford, England.

Chang J.C., Meredith D.M., Mayer P.R., Borromeo M.D., Lai H.C., Ou Y.H. and Johnson J.E. Prdm13 mediates the balance of inhibitory and excitatory neurons in somatosensory circuits. (2013). Dev Cell. 25(2): 182-195.

Wang Y., Lin L., Lai H., Parada L.F., and Lei L. Transcription factor Sox11 is essential for both embryonic and adult neurogenesis. (2013). Dev Dyn. Published online April 28, 2013.

Lai H.C., Klisch T.J., Roberts R., Zoghbi H.Y., and Johnson J.E. In vivo neuronal subtype-specific targets of Atoh1 (Math1) in dorsal spinal cord. (2011). J. Neurosci. 31(30):10859-10871.

Panteleeva I., Boutillier S., See V., Spiller D.G., Rouaux C., Almouzni G., Bailly D., Maison C., Lai H.C., Loeffler J.P., Boutillier A.L. HP1alpha guides neuronal fate by timing E2F-targeted genes silencing during terminal differentiation. (2007). EMBO J. 26(15): 3616-28.

Grabe M.*, Lai H.C.*, Jain M., Jan Y.N., Jan L.Y. Structure prediction for the down state of a potassium channel voltage sensor. (2007). Nature. 445(7127): 550-553. *Equal contribution.

Lai H.C., Jan L.Y. The distribution and targeting of neuronal voltage-gated ion channels. (2006). Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 7(7): 548-562.

Lai H.C., Grabe M., Jan Y.N., Jan L.Y. The S4 voltage sensor packs against the pore domain in the KAT1 voltage-gated potassium channel. (2005). Neuron. 47(3):395-406.

Serber Z., Lai H.C., Yang A., Ou H.D., Sigal M.S., Kelly A.E., Darimont B.D., Duijf P.H., Van Bokhoven H., McKeon F., Dötsch V.  A C-terminal inhibitory domain controls the activity of p63 by an intramolecular mechanism. (2002). Mol. Cell Biol. 22(24):8601-11.

Ou H.D., Lai H.C., Serber Z., Dötsch V.  Efficient identification of amino acid types for fast protein backbone assignments. (2001). J. Biomol. NMR. 21(3):269-73.