Research Fellows Directory
Dr Alanna Watt
University College London
Years before you can play a Mozart Sonata on the piano, your brain has developed into a structure with the basic organization already intact that will later enable acquisition of motor skills, like learning a Sonata. Playing the piano involves the cerebellum – a comparatively simple and well-understood brain region – and my research focuses on how it develops.
The principle neuron of the cerebellum is the Purkinje cell, which in the adult has an unmistakable shape: a large, branchy dendritic tree that flat, like an espalier fruit tree, as well as an axonal collateral that lies predominantly within the same plane. Interestingly, Purkinje cell dendrites are not flat early in development; they flatten as the cerebellum matures. My research aims to study this developmental flattening. In particular, I want to look not simply at the level of one individual dendritic tree, but rather at nearby neighbouring neurons: the dendritic forest. To do this, I have bred mice that express a rainbow of fluorescent proteins – Brainbow mice – specifically in Purkinje cells. Using these mice, I can illuminate the development of dozens of neighbouring Purkinje cells. For instance, I will be able to discover whether the development of Purkinje dendrites arise from local factors – if nearby dendrites flatten in tandem – or by cell-intrinsic factors – if neighbouring dendrites flatten independent of each other. These mice will also let us understand how the Purkinje cell dendritic forest is organized in mature animals, which will have important implications for our understanding of how the cerebellar circuit functions.
By understanding the development of the Purkinje cells, and their role in orchestrating the development of the cerebellum, I hope that we may find tools to target treatment of disorders of the cerebellum, such as ataxias. Furthermore, since these processes may be conserved, this may be relevant to other brain regions as well.