My lab is interested in understanding how sensory experience can be accurately translated into neuronal and behavioral plasticity through genetic and epigenetic networks. Sensory experience-evoked neural activity plays essential roles in brain development and function, not only by instructing structural and functional changes in individual synapses, but also by triggering various calcium-dependent signaling cascades which ultimately lead to the activation of specific gene expression programs in the nucleus. This activity-induced nuclear gene expression is the cell-wide adaptation mechanism that permits the synaptic and behavioral plasticity to be long lasting. Many key players in the programs have been implicated in several human neurological disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and epilepsy. It is our hope to provide novel mechanistic insights into the etiology of these relevant disorders. Our current research effort is mainly focused on two related areas.

Investigating the role of long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs) in synaptic and behavioral plasticity

Our recent genome-wide study of the neuronal gene expression program discovered that a novel class of long noncoding RNAs is dynamically expressed from thousands of functionally active neuronal enhancers, which we term “eRNAs (enhancer RNAs)”. We have also defined other types of lncRNAs whose expression is brain-specific and/or activity-dependent. My lab currently examines the functional implications of various types of lncRNAs on sensory stimulation-dependent changes in neural functions and behavior.

Characterization of brain enhancers

Enhancers are known to control the temporal and spatial expression of genes. However, the mechanism by which neuronal activity utilizes these enhancers to control stimulus and region-specific gene expression in the brain has not been well established. We are interested in characterizing neuron-specific enhancers whose function is tightly regulated by neuronal activity and/or growth factors to elucidate the biological function of enhancer-dependent transcription in neurons. Investigation into the specific roles of enhancers in sensory experience-dependent signaling and gene expression, and identification of the subsequent implications enhancers have on cognitive behavior is examined under both in vitro and in vivo contexts.