Scholar Profile

Bernardo L. Sabatini

Department of Neurobiology
Harvard University Medical School
220 Longwood Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Voice: 617-432-5670 or -5672
Fax: 617-432-3223
Personal Homepage
2002 Searle Scholar
Current Member of the Advisory Board

Research Interests

Regulation of Dendritic Protein Translation by Synaptic Activity

The modification of synaptic connections between neurons is thought to underlie our ability to form memories and acquire new behaviors. The majority of excitatory synapses in the brain are formed onto specialized cellular structures known as dendritic spines that consist of a bulbous spine head that is separated from the remainder of the dendrite by a thin neck. It has long been speculated the function of spines is to provide the cell with a compartmentalized space in which the machinery necessary to modify and read the activity of a particular synapse can operate without interference from neighboring synapses. However, until recent technical advances, the small size of spines (usually less than 0.1 femtoliters in volume) had prevented the direct examination of their role in spatially restricting biochemical signaling. Advances in optical techniques and in particular the two-photon microscope have made possible imaging of spines located deep within scattering tissue, such as in a brain slice or within an intact animal. It is now known that spines are dynamic structures that grow, structurally reorganize, and sometimes disappear within tens of minutes and spine motility has been correlated with the ability of animals of reorganize their cerebral cortex in response to sensory deprivation. However, many questions concerning the function and biogenesis of spines remain unanswered. In particular, it is not known to what degree spines are functionally specialized and segregated compartments. Nor have the intracellular mechanisms by which neurons regulate the formation and maintenance of spines been elucidated.

The goal of our laboratory is to study biochemical signaling within spines and boutons in order to understand the pathways that trigger the formation of new synapses and the regulation of existing ones. The principal challenge in these studies is that much of the relevant biochemical signaling occurs in very small subcellular compartments such as dendritic spines and axonal boutons. We are combining molecular biology, electrophysiology, and microscopy to overcome this obstacle. Principal among these is the use of 2-photon laser scanning microscopy (2PLSM), which is ideally suited for measuring fluorescent signals from individual boutons or spines located within brain slices or in vivo.

We are initially focusing on investigating the mechanisms that reciprocally couple synaptic activity and regulated protein translation. Ample evidence now exists that synaptic stimuli can influence the translation of dendritic mRNAs and that the newly synthesized proteins in turn regulate synaptic activity. We have developed fluorescent reporters of protein translation and have begun to explore the synaptic stimuli and signaling cascades that activate protein translation in dendrites.

We are also continuing work to explore how the entry of calcium into dendrites leads to the modification of synaptic strength and how the properties of dendrites and spines shape the electrical and biochemical signals that result from synaptic activity. Of particular interest is how signals arriving from multiple contacts onto a single cell interact and summate to determine the net effect on the dendrite and cell as a whole.