Department News and Events

September 21, 2015 - Nature Magazine article "Formula for Success" featuring our very own Dorothy Schafer, Ph.D.

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September 17, 2015 - Current Biology article published from Francis Lab, titled "Transcriptional Control of Synaptic Remodeling through Regulated Expression of an Immunoglobulin Superfamily Protien"


As we develop, our brains are changing, some neuronal connections (synapses) are strengthened while others are weakened or eliminated.  While this process is key for nervous system development, the molecular mechanisms that control it are poorly understood. Here, Dr. Francis and colleagues identify a novel mechanism by which synaptic refinement is set in motion in the nematode C. elegans, through regulated expression of the synapse-associated Ig domain protein OIG-1.

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September 17, 2015 - Dori Schafer, PhD, interviewed for Boston Globe article "Gender gap is wide in research funds, study shows"

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September 8, 2015 - Mark Alkema, PhD, and colleagues are the first to show that it's possible to reverse the behavior of an animal by flipping a switch in neuronal communication

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August 28, 2015 -  Dirk Albrecht (WPI)  and Mark Alkema (UMMS) receive collaborative seed funding for high throughput drug screening in a C. elegans model for Calcium Channelopathies

Neuronal voltage-gated calcium channels (VGCCs) are key regulators of synaptic transmission, dendritic integration, and gene expression, and changes in VGCC properties cause debilitating neurological disorders such as migraine, epilepsy, ataxia and autism. Using an in-vivo Calcium-imaging approach this project aims to rapidly discover candidate compounds for treatment of these disorders.


August 18, 2015 - Seven GSBS students join Department of Neurobiology labs.  Seven additional students will be pursuing their doctoral degrees with Department of Neurobiology faculty.  These students are starting their second year of graduate school. The students (and their advisors) are: Elaine Chang (Patrick Emery), Monika Chitre (Patrick Emery), Evelyn Erickson (Dave Weaver), Jeffrey Frost (Dori Schafer), Devyn Oliver (co-mentored by Mike Francis and Claire Bénard), Ye Shang (Yang Xiang) and Fei Wang (Yang Xiang).  Welcome!  A complete listing of previous and current graduate students in the Department is available (here)


July 16, 2015 - Yuly Fuentes-Medel, former GSBS student in the laboratory of Vivian Budnik, Ph.D. & Marc Freeman, Ph.D., from 2006-2012 has been named 2015 Woman to Watch in Science & Technology by Boston Business Journal. Please see attached links for full story.

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FG Magazine Article here

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July 7, 2015 - PLOS Biology article published from the Bénard Lab, titled “ Glypican Is a Modulator of Netrin-Mediated Axon Guidance"


During the development of the nervous system, migrating axons are guided as they navi- gate through complex environments to reach their target destinations. These directed mi- grations are essential to ensure the proper wiring and function of the nervous system and are instructed by guidance cues and receptors. There is a remarkably small set of guidance cues and receptors relative to the large number of neuronal migrations, suggesting that the actions of these guidance cues might be diversified by regulatory mechanisms. We have addressed this question in the genetically tractable nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. We identify that the response of migrating neurons to a key guidance cue, UNC-6/netrin, is modulated by a specific proteoglycan, LON-2/glypican. We show that LON-2/glypican may carry out this regulation by interacting with the UNC-40/DCC netrin receptor on the cell surface. We propose that LON-2/glypican acts as an extracellular modulator of UNC- 40/DCC-mediated guidance to fine-tune axonal responses to UNC-6/netrin signals during migration.

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June 24, 2015 - Neuron article published from the Budnik Lab, titled "Nucleus to Synapse Nesprin1 Railroad Tracks Direct Synapse Maturation through RNA Localization"


An important mechanism underlying synapse development and plasticity is the localization of mRNAs that travel from the nucleus to synaptic sites. Here we demonstrate that the giant nuclear-associated Nesprin1 (dNesp1) forms striated F-actin-based filaments, which we dubbed “railroad tracks,” that span from muscle nuclei to postsynaptic sites at the neuromuscular junction in Drosophila. These railroad tracks specifically wrap around immature boutons formed during development and in response to electrical activity. In the absence of dNesp1, mRNAs normally localized at postsynaptic sites are lacking and synaptic maturation is inhibited. This dNesp1 function does not depend on direct association of dNesp1 isoforms with the nuclear envelope. We also show that dNesp1 functions with an unconventional myosin, Myo1D, and that both dNesp1 and Myo1D are mutually required for their localization to immature boutons. These studies unravel a novel pathway directing the transport of mRNAs from the nucleus to postsynaptic sites during synaptic maturation.

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May 29, 2015 - Vivian Budnik, Ph.D. and Marc Freeman, Ph.D., awarded the President's Science and Technology Initiatives Fund Award!

UMASS Medical School has one of the richest collections of researchers that use Drosophila, C. elegans, and zebrafish to explore fundamental questions relevant to human disease.  CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technologies have revolutionized how labs utilizing these genetic model systems approach their studies.  Drs. Budnik and Freeman proposed to establish a core for genome engineering using cutting edge new CRISPR/Cas9 technologies in Drosophila, meant to complement our existing strengths in such approaches in C. elegans and zebrafish, and synergize directly with the efforts of Dr. Mike Brodsky in the MCCB Department.  The President's office awarded Budnik and Freeman $125,000 for the establishment of the core, and Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga and the UMCCTS generously committed an additional $25,000 for the effort.  The long term goal will be to establish an injection core for Drosophila genome engineering that can be exploited by the UMMS community, as well as other UMASS campuses, in order to help bridge research efforts, expertise, and collaboration within the UMMS system.

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May 28, 2015 - GSBS class speaker Allie Muthukumar inspired by research into glial cells and the research of Marc Freeman, Ph.D.

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May 15, 2015 - Congratulations to Vivian Budnik, Ph.D., on her appointment to Chair of Neurobiology!

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May 15, 2015 - Yang Xiang, Ph.D., awarded R01 NIH grant: Molecular Mechanisms of nociceptor sensitization

Inflammatory pain, characterized by enhanced pain sensation after tissue injury, is one of the major types of pain hypersensitivity, and may cause chronic pain when not treated properly.  However, the cellular and molecular mechanisms of inflammatory pain is not well understood.  It was recently found that tissue injury induces inflammatory pain in fruit fly Drosophila, a classical genetically tractable model organism.  Importantly, mechanisms of inflammatory pain is highly conserved between fruit flies and humans, arguing that studies in fruit flies can offer novel insights into pain hypersensitivity in humans.  In the current proposal, we propose to study pain hypersensitivity at single cell resolution in Drosophila larvae, focusing on how tissue injury enhances excitability of nociceptive sensory neurons.

May 8, 2015 - Congratulations!! David Weaver, Ph.D., receives the Faculty Award for outstanding contribution to curricular development and to Michael Francis, Ph.D., for receiving the Faculty Award for outstanding research mentoring and commitment to student professional advancement at the Annual Educational Recognition Awards ceremony

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May 8, 2015 - Michael Francis, Ph.D., awarded R21 NIH grant: Neuromodulator signaling and context dependent behavior

This proposal aims to understand how medically relevant neuromodulatory signaling, initiated by the conserved NLP-12/cholecystokinin (CCK) neuropeptide, shapes neural circuit activity and context-dependent behavior.  Alterations in neuropeptide signaling, and in particular CCK signaling, are linked with a wide variety of neuropsychiatric conditions, including panic and anxiety disorders as well as schizophrenia; yet it is too difficult to understand the pathophysiology of these diseases because our understanding of how neuromodulatory systems shape neural activity remains inadequate.  By studying a conserved neuromodulatory system in the simple model organism C. elegans, we expect to obtain a new level of understanding of how neuromodulators shape circuit activity, ultimately leading to the development of new therapies for brain disorders. 

April 27, 2015 - Patrick Emery, Ph.D., awarded R01 NIH grant: Synchronization of Drosophila Circadian Rhythms by Temperature Cycles

Circadian rhythms play a critical role in most animals: they optimize metabolism, physiology and behavior with the time of day.  Temperature is a universal environmental cue for circadian pacemakers.  Even mammals use their circadian body tempertature rhythms to synchronize circadian clocks throughout their body. The fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster is a fantastic model to understand circadian rhythms.  Our goal is to uncover the molecular mechanisms underlying temperature synchronization of Drosophila circadian rhythms, and understand how light and temperature input pathways interact.  Given the conservation of mechanisms underlying circadian rhythms in animals, we anticipate that the fundamental principles revealed by our work will have long-term implication for our understanding of human circadian rhythms, and the diseases associated with their dysfunction.

March 2, 2015 - Michael Francis, Ph.D., awarded R56 NIH grant: Molecluar analysis of neural circuit excitation and inhibition

The neurotransmitter acetylcholine plays conserved roles in mediating communication between neurons from nematodes to humans.  Alterations in acetylcholine-mediated signaling are a hallmark of a wide variety of degenerative neurological disorders and nicotine addiction, yet we know very little about the molecular pathways that regulate this process in the mature nervous system or about how deficits alter connectivity in the developing nervous system.  Our work will provide fundamental knowledge about mechanisms for regulation of acetylcholine-mediated signaling and is expected to provide critical insights into how defects in acetylcholine-mediated signaling cause disease.

January 30, 2015 - Alison Philbrook, of Dr. Michael Francis' Lab, awarded the National Reserach Service Award Fellowship: Molecular regulation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors

Smoking-related diseases result in more than 400,000 premature deaths in the United States each year, yet thousands struggle with smoking cessation.  Nicotine, the major addictive component in tobacco, interacts with specific classes of nicotine acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs), altering the functional state of the receptors and expression at the cell surface.  Although the role of nAChRs in nictoine addiction has been well established, mechanisms for the biological regulation of these receptors during normal brain function and following nicotine exposure are poorly defined.  This proposal aims to understand the dynamics nAChRs on the neuronal cell surface using the model system C. elegans.  Given the high degree of evolutionary conservation between nematodes and mammals, it is expected that the findings will be directly relevant for understanding the biology of nAChRs in the mammalian brain.

January 1, 2015 - Jaeda Coutinho-Budd, of Dr. Marc Freeman's Lab, awarded the American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellowship: Cellular and Molecular Mechanisms Regulating Glial Growth Control

Local and regional spread of tumors is driven by increased cell invasiveness and metastasis, whereby primary tumors spread to secondary tissues.  Precisely how tumor cells become invasive is poorly understood, but understanding this transformation remains a major goal in basic biomedical research. Glioma, a tumor that generates in the nervous system, broadly describes a category of molecularly heterogeneous tumors that typically arise from glial cells such as astrocytes or oligodendrocytes.  Not only are many high-grade gliomas often resistant to chemotherapy, but their invasive nature makes surgical removal nearly impossible.  Prior to tumorigenesis, glia play important roles in regulating nervous system function, such as providing trophic factors for neurite growth and guidance, and facilitating synapse formation and maturation.  However, genetic lesions transform these beneficial cells into destructive cancers through a variety of unidentified mechanisms.  It is therefore paramount to better understand the basic molecular and genetic mechanisms that regulate glial proliferation, growth and infiltration.  The goal of this project is to use Drosophila melanogaster to determine how these processes go awry in glial disease.

October 6, 2014 - Carlos Lois, M.D., Ph.D., awarded a collaborative U01 BRAIN Initiative grant with Stanford University, Brandeis University and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory: Combining genetics, genomics, and anatomy to classify cell types across mammals

Most of what is known about how neurons work is based on experiments that have been done in mice or rats.  We know that human brains are more complex that mice or rat brains, but we really do not understand exactly how evolution has progressed from the rodent to the human brain.  We will compare the properties and function of identical neurons genetically identified in in transgenic mice and rats to find out in which properties they differ.  We will also examine which genes are different (in those genetically identified neurons) between mice and rats so that we could explain how the differences in gene expression  account for the differences in function.  This kind of information will allow us to understand the logic of evolution by which neurons become more complex from lower animals to higher animals, and eventually, to understand why the human brain can do things that no other animal brain can do. 

The Department of Neurobiology would like to welcome our newest faculty member, Assistant Professor, Dorothy "Dori" Schafer, Ph.D!  Dr. Schafer will join us on January 1, 2015

Budnik named fellow of the Hedwig van Ameringen Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM)

Vivian Budnik, Ph.D., has been named fellow of the ELAM Program for Women at the Drexel University College for Medicine in Philadelphia.

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Congratulations on our 2014 Faculty Promotions!

June 19, 2014 - Marc Freeman, Ph.D., promoted to Professor

May 16, 2014 - Patrick Emery, Ph.D., promoted to Professor and Mark Alkema, Ph.D. promoted to Associate Professor

March 21, 2014 - Michael Francis, Ph.D., promoted to Associate Professor

Budnik receives prestigious MERIT award from NIH

Guaranteed long-term funding allows for ‘more incisive and risky approaches’

Vivian Budnik, Ph.D., has received a Method to Extend Research in Time (MERIT) award from the National Institute of Mental Health for her grant The wingless transduction pathway in synapse development. MERIT awards are given to a very small number of researchers who “have demonstrated superior competence and productivity during their previous endeavors and who are likely to continue to perform in an outstanding manner in the future,” according to NIH. 

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Report on monarch butterfly dropoff cites work by Steve Reppert at UMMS

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Budnik gets EUREKA grant to study communication between nucleus and cytoplasm

High-risk, high-impact research may lead to new understanding of tissue dystrophies and aging disorders

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Marc R. Freeman, Ph.D., named Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator

Neurobiologist joins five other HHMI investigators at UMMS

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