NYU neuroscientist says genes and environment are interlinked

11 Nov 2013

According to New York University’s (NYU), Professor Gordon Fishell, the challenges faced by the nervous system during development are akin to trying to assemble a car while driving it at the same time.

Addressing guests at the Queensland Brain Institute’s (QBI) fifth annual Merson Lecture, the Julius Raynes Professor of Neuroscience and Physiology at the NYU School of Medicine and Associate Director of the NYU Neuroscience Institute, shared his insights into wiring and disease in the nervous system.

“The nervous system, like all biological systems, self-assembles,” said Professor Fishell.

“They achieve this by mutual signalling between the neural cell types that comprise it.”

Professor Fishell’s interest is with the inhibitory cells that, he explains, act as the yin to the excitatory cells’ yang.

Excitatory cells carry information and allow an external world to be internalised and represented in the brain.

“The inhibitory cells, the cortical interneurons, keep the excitatory cells in check and prevent the networks from overloading and causing problems such as epilepsy or schizophrenia,” he said.

Professor Fishell’s laboratory explores the developmental events by which these cells acquire their identities.

“What we have discovered is that the very electrical signals that ultimately allow us to perceive the world are the same ones that are used to assemble our nervous system.”

Not all dysfunction results in brain disease according to Professor Fishell’s research.

“A false dichotomy is that disease can be caused by genes or environment, while in fact the two are interlinked.

“Environment affects gene expression and genes affect environment,” he said.

The Merson Lecture is named in honour of Dr David Merson, member of the QBI Advisory Board, whose philanthropic sponsorship of this lecture is indicative of a growing community interest in neuroscience and the cutting-edge research that is being done in the area of neurological and mental diseases.