Another research goal is to understand the molecular mechanism of the formation and long-term maintenance of memories. Here, the sea slug Aplysia and related marine molluscs lead the way. Their giant nerve cells allow us to probe the critical molecular events of learning and memory in real time, all the way from genes to behaviors. In fact, we can follow the activity of all the genes in a single neuron as it learns and remembers!
In doing so we are asking questions which are difficult or impossible to address elsewhere. How does the activity of more than 20,000 genes within a single cell grow synapses and form memories that last a lifetime? Is there only one way, or are there multiple ways to do this and why? Since the genes and the way they are regulated in our brain cells are so similar to those in Aplysia, this understanding has tremendous potential application for diseases of the human brain and nervous system.
Our laboratory works to characterize basic mechanisms underlying the design of nervous systems and evolution of neuronal signaling mechanisms. The major questions are: (1) why are individual neurons so different from each other, (2) how do they maintain such precise connections between each other, (3) how does this fixed wiring result in such enormous neuronal plasticity and (4) how does this contribute to learning and memory mechanisms? By taking advantage of relatively simpler nervous systems of invertebrate animal models, we combine neuroscience,genomics, bioinformatics, evolutionary theory, zoology, molecular biology, microanalytical chemistry and nanoscience to understand how neurons operate, learn and remember.