Research Projects

1. Developmentally sensitive regulatory mechanisms of synapse assembly and function.

The mutations in genes encoding proteins that regulate cellular processes for normal synaptic function and plasticity are known to cause several human brain disorders but the mechanisms how these proteins control the neuronal circuitry that led to normal neuronal plasticity are still poorly understood. The work in our lab identifies the molecular mechanisms affecting neuronal function and plasticity in rodent models of neuropsychiatric disorders, including autism, intellectual disability, and addiction behavior. Our laboratory efforts combine electrophysiology, molecular biology, biochemistry, pharmacology, neuronal morphology, and behavioral characterization to understand the underlying pathophysiology in the long-term changes in synaptic strength relevant to neuropsychiatric disorders and translate basic neurobiology findings into effective treatments.

A major line of investigation in the lab focuses on understanding the mechanisms by which cytoplasmic FMRP interacting protein 1 (Cyfip1) regulates synapse function and plasticity in developing neural circuits, and how the changes in Cyfip1 levels lead to several neuropsychiatric brain disorders. Copy number variations in CYFIP1 gene are risk factors for several neuropsychiatric disorders. We are currently studying the role of Cyfip1 in addiction behavior, and synaptic function and plasticity in the reward pathway. Our data show that cocaine responses are affected when Cyfip1 levels are reduced in open field tests and a modified touch screen learning/decision making test (DePoy et al., 2016) with oral cocaine.

2. The regulation of extracellular matrix as a possible link between Neurofibromatosis Type 1 and autism spectrum disorders.

Our long-term goal is to identify new therapeutics for cognitive deficits associated with monogenic forms of autism. Our results show abnormalities in perineuronal nets (PNN) in Neurofibromatosis 1 NF1 mouse model in hippocampal brain slices.

3. Consequences of Systemic Inflammation on Secondary Neural Progenitors, Social Behavior and Circuits.

We have collaborated with Dr. Levison to examine the role of IL-6 in perinatal infections and the increased risk of offspring developing neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism. The transient increase in circulating IL-6 from postnatal days 3-6, a period when the cells of the secondary germinal matrices are rapidly expanding, elicits behavioral changes characteristic of important symptoms in neurodevelopmental disorders.

4. Exploring the association between the severity of Avolition-Apathy, reward learning and regulation of miRNA in patients with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder

In collaboration with Dr. Karadag and Dr. Myers we are studying the hypothesis that the severity of Avolition-Apathy (A-A) in patients with schizophrenia is correlated with the severity of impairment in reward learning, relevant structural, functional and gene expression changes. We predict that patients with higher level of A-A and lower reward learning rates will have downregulated miRNA-target mRNA levels for the genes related to brain plasticity and cognitive function as well as associated structural changes. The sequencing part of this study is funded by Rutgers core facilities utilization grant.

5. Our families, our culture, our Mental Health; Moving from Surviving to Thriving (MOST Program)
Co-I: Sebastian Acevedo, MPH
Aims: (1) Assess minority youth perspectives on mental health stigma, knowledge, and health-seeking behaviors. (2) Educate participants on what mental illness is, how it presents, and how it is treated.(3) Develop resilience amongst Newark youth to cope with mental health stressors utilizing a variety of skills and programs. (4) Provide screenings, referrals and evaluations for adolescents who wish to be seen by a mental healthcare provider.         

Our research is supported through grants from foundations and the National Institute of Mental Health. Departmental faculty research interests include:

Petros Levounis, M.D.:
Interest: Psychotherapy, addiction, psychiatry teaching, gay and lesbian mental health
Dr. Levounis is a Professor of Psychiatry and his area of expertise are psychotherapy and psychopharmacology of addiction and co-occurring psychiatric disorders, teaching in psychiatry, gay and lesbian mental health, and behavioral addictions.

Rashi Aggarwal, M.D.
Interest: Empathy and wellness, stigma and discrimination, international medical graduate education, training and adjustment
Dr. Aggarwal is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry. Her recent work focuses on empathy and wellness amongst trainees, stigma and discrimination against psychiatric patients, quality of life among residents, adjustment issues among international medical graduates, graduate and postgraduate education.

Ozlem Gunal, M.D., P.h.D.
Interest: Neurobiological basis of psychiatric disorders
Dr. Gunal is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry. Her research focus is to understand the changes in synaptic function and plasticity in rodent models of neuropsychiatric disorders, identify the deficits in pathways, target proteins, which may contribute to the pathophysiology of these disorders, mainly autism and related disorders, and then to attempt interventions in the model systems.

Douglas Opler, M.D.
Interest: Psychosomatic medicine and CL psychiatry, psychopharmacology