BRAINS with Jason Shepherd

We’re delighted to welcome our next curator, Associate Professor Jason Shepherd (@jasonsynaptic), who is Jon M. Huntsman Presidential Shepherd_JasonEndowed Chair and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Ben Barres Investigator at the University of Utah. His work combines Neuroscience, Cell Biology, Biochemistry to understand how the brain stores information and how this goes wrong in neurological disorders. Jason is a New Zealander by birth, obtaining his BSc (Hons) at the University of Otago, his Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and postdoctoral training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s won quite a few awards aswell:  the Peter and Patricia Gruber International Research Award in Neuroscience, the International Society for Neurochemistry Young Investigator Award, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Award, and is a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow. So, if you have questions about neurological disorders, this is the week to ask them! Here’s Jason’s story.

 

 

 

According to my parents, I was born a scientist…constantly asking questions. I made asking questions a career. The only dilemma was which questions to ask first and what’s more fascinating than the brain?!

 

Memory is what makes us who we are and is the direct interface between reality and brain function. How brains process and store information is one of THE key questions in neuroscience. And endlessly fascinating quest.

 

Brains have an amazing ability to learn and store information for long periods – in some cases, a lifetime. A major challenge in neuroscience is to understand how neuronal networks are sculpted by experience and how proteins/genes contribute to circuit modification. The goal of our research is to understand information storage, from the molecular level through in vivo neuronal networks and how these processes go awry in neurological disorders. My lab utilizes coordinated biochemical, cell biological, electrophysiological and imaging studies both in vitro and in vivo. We recently discovered a novel mechanism of neuronal communication that resembles the life-cycle of retroviruses. The neuronal gene Arc, a master regulator of synaptic plasticity and memory, contains a Gag retroviral homology domain that has conserved secondary structure with HIV-1 that is derived from a distinct family of retrotransposons. Arc protein self-assembles into viral-like capsids that are released from cells and carry RNA/proteins to neighboring cells. Our findings open up a new area of investigation in the cell biology of cell-to-cell communication, by revealing that some retrotransposon-derived genes retain the ability to form capsids that shuttle RNAs and proteins between cells.

 

Ongoing projects in the lab aim to dissect this new intercellular pathway that intersects diverse fields of biology that include virology, extracellular communication, evolutionary biology, gene delivery and neuroscience. Other projects in the lab include:

  • The synaptic engram – how networks of cells encode, store and retrieve information
  • How experience sculpts the brain, using in vivo 2-photon imaging in the visual cortex
  • The synaptic dysfunction that underlies neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s Disease and autism spectrum disorders
  • Trafficking of neurotransmitter receptors at synapses

 

Neurological disorders remain intractable, with few real therapeutic options. This is partly due to the lack of knowledge of how the brain normally works. Understanding the nuts and bolts of how brains work are key to developing new therapies for some of these devastating diseases.

 

I referee weekend rugby games as an example of life outside of science. Since moving to Utah, I’ve picked up landscape photography. This is been a fun creative outlet.

 

Welcome, Jason!

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