SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Two neuroscientists at Upstate Medical University will use a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to continue their work on the role of a new brain protein involved in social memory.
Drs. Julio Licinio and Ma-Li Wong will use a five-year, $3.6 million grant from NIH to continue researching how a plant gene functions in the mammalian brain.
Both Licinio and Wong are SUNY distinguished professors of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neuroscience and physiology.
The pair had the paper, “The epigenetic reader PHF21B modulates murine social memory and synaptic plasticity–related genes,” published in JCI Insight last month. It is available at: https://insight.jci.org/articles/view/158081
In a previous paper published in Molecular Psychiatry, Licinio and Wong were the first to discover that a plant gene that guides plant-root growth (PHF21B) is actually expressed in the mammalian brain and is regulated by stress.
This new paper, published July 22, shows that this gene and the protein it encodes regulates social behavior, synaptic proteins, and long-term potentiation (LTP).
Licinio said that LTP is a process involving persistent strengthening of synapses that leads to a long-lasting increase in signal transmission between neurons. It is an “essential process” in the context of synaptic plasticity, per the Upstate Medical announcement. LTP recording is widely recognized as a cellular model for the study of memory.
The researchers were initially studying depression and had some initial clues from their studies that this plant gene could be involved in the risk to have depression,” Licinio said.
“We then thought, what does a plant gene have to do with depression?” he said. “We decided to see if it was expressed in the brain, and to our surprise, it was. It’s part of a gene family that was initially found in plants, and its full name is plant homeodomain finger protein 21B. We showed that it was expressed in the mammalian brain and contributes to regulate the response to stress.”
This discovery, occurring in 2016, was the first paper to show this connection. After that, a team of German researchers took Licinio and Wong’s work a step further and showed that this same gene guides the development of neurons in the brain’s cortex.
The researchers knocked down the gene and saw a disruption of that migration during development, Upstate Medical said.
Licinio and Wong’s most recent paper builds on that first finding. They now discovered that knocking down the PHF21B gene impacts social memory. In their work, mammals deficient in the gene treated other animals like new each time they were introduced.
“We tried to show that this gene continues to be important throughout life,” Licinio said. “One of the potential implications is for disorders like autism or some psychiatric disorders where social memory is affected.”
The NIH grant will allow the pair and their team of researchers to continue this work. Upstate Medical noted.