Dr. Benjamin Hall Receives National Science Foundation Award


Dr. Hall has received a National Science Foundation Career Award. Over the next five years, the grant will provide $920,000 in funding for Hall's laboratory research and his work with undergraduate students in the sciences. Hall's research involves cortical development, which requires morphological elaboration of billions of neurons and precise formation and maturation of trillions of synaptic connections. The goal of research in his laboratory is to improve our understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms that regulate cortical synapse development. N-Methyl D-Aspartate neurotransmitter receptors (NMDARs) are a critical component of excitatory cortical synapses. Interestingly, the subunit composition of these receptors is tightly controlled. NMDARs are heteromultimeric structures formed by association of two NR1 and two NR2 subunits. Heightened synaptogenesis, during late embryogenesis and early postnatal life, corresponds with the exclusive expression and incorporation of NR2B subunits to the NMDAR complex.

Studying the role of these unique NR2B-containing NMDARs has been complicated by the fact that genetic removal of this subunit is a lethal mutation. To overcome this limitation, Hall's laboratory has generated two genetically modified mouse lines: 1) an NR2B ‘conditional knockout’, in which the subunit can be excised in regionally and temporally specific manners in the brain, and 2) an NR2A to NR2B ‘replacement’ mouse, in which the NR2B subunit has been replaced by the more mature cortical subunit (NR2A). Studies funded under this grant combine techniques in molecular biology with electrophysiological recordings to define the precise role of NR2B-signaling in regulating cortical synapse development. Findings from these studies will improve our understanding of synapse development and could help define pharmaceutical-based intervention strategies for neurodevelopmental disorders such as Autism and Schizophrenia.

In addition to training students within Hall's laboratory, this grant promotes career opportunities in neuroscience and biomedical research to students at minority-serving schools in Louisiana, through the initiation of a training course in neurobiological research. The course will be held each spring at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) DeFelice Marine Station in Cocodrie Louisiana and will recruit and financially support ten underrepresented minority students from the LUMCON member Universities. Hall will combine hands-on training in current laboratory techniques with informal lectures by Tulane neuroscientists. The aims of the course are to provide: 1) a strong historical perspective to the field of neurobiology, 2) in depth introduction to current research problems in neurobiology, and 3) hands-on experience using current research techniques. The goal is to train competitive students to fill the numerous career opportunities that exist in biomedical research, both within and outside of Louisiana.

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