The human brain is an extremely complicated organ, one that we know surprisingly little about in spite of recent advances in research, said Timothy Dore, associate professor of chemistry at NYU Abu Dhabi. “Our understanding of the brain is rudimentary, and the future of gaining more knowledge about how it works demands that we have tools to dissect its function at a precise level.”
To study how the brain functions, Dore and his team of researchers have developed a system that uses sophisticated chemistry to wrap biologically active molecules like neurotransmitters in a chemical cage called a photoremovable protecting group, or PPG, and then release those neurotransmitters at precise times and in exact locations in a brain with pulses of light.
Doing so allows Dore and his collaborators to study how chemicals like serotonin and dopamine activate neurons and which neuronal pathways in the brain are involved in these reactions.
The neurotransmitters Dore focuses on are critical for biological development and play an important role in the behavior of animals, humans included. During the development of an embryo, serotonin helps guide leftright patterning; this is the characteristic of animals and other organisms being generally symmetrical on the left and right sides of their bodies. And dopamine, which Dore is currently conducting experiments with, is one of the main chemicals in the brain’s reward system.
Dopamine drives mood and appetite, and is also involved in addiction, depression, and destructive neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. “Our work is essentially driven by our desire to understand how the brain works and how animals go from one cell to a complex organism that has cognition,” Dore said.
“We’re trying to determine some of the underlying processes that drive development, and our main focus is to develop tools that enable researchers — including those in our lab and elsewhere — to be able to explore how these processes work and how our brain functions.”