Researchers in Professor Linda Richards' laboratory investigate how the brain forms connections during foetal development. The laboratory is focussed on understanding the mechanisms regulating the formation of the cerebral cortex and the corpus callosum, which connects the left and right sides of the brain and is involved in higher-order cognitive processes. These processes include sensory and motor information processing as well as speech, emotions, memory formation and storage, and many other brain functions.
Researchers in Professor Linda Richards' laboratory have made several important discoveries recently.
For several years, laboratory members have been studying the role of a family of transcription factors known as the nuclear factor one gene (Nf1) family in the development of the cerebral cortex. Until recently, little was known about how Nf1 genes regulated these events at a molecular or genetic level. Recent research has shown Nf1a plays a pivotal role in regulating proliferation and differentiation of hippocampal neurons. It does this by simultaneously turning off genes required for proliferation, such as Hes1 and turning on genes required for differentiation, such as mature glial markers. This represents a conceptual advance in understanding that, for cells to proceed to differentiation, they must first cease proliferation.
In 2010, the group also published its landmark study on the discovery of the mouse commissural plate. Since the early 1990s, it has been hypothesised that a specialised region of the brain might exist that is important for the formation of all forebrain commissures, axonal tracts that connect the two sides of the brain. The group identified that a commissural plate exists in mice and is made up of four distinct regions, each with molecular and genetically defined boundaries. This work will help to identify whether disruption of the commissural plate in humans might underlie agenesis of the corpus callosum, which occurs at a rate of 1 in every 4,000 live births.