Near the base of the brain lies a group of cells (neurons), small in number but weighty in influence, that create the chemical dopamine and release it in distinct brain regions. These dopamine pathways are necessary for both the initiation of movement and the positive perception of rewards (like getting a bowl of ice cream). When this system breaks down, it can produce movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease, as well as pathological alterations in mood such as depression. Turned around, too much dopamine can conversely lead to a slew of neuropsychiatric disorders including addiction, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The reason many of these disorders have poor treatment options is because we lack a basic understanding of how communication between dopamine neurons and other cells in the brain goes awry when these diseases strike. Furthermore, aging is the single most important risk factor for Parkinson’s disease, and we also lack information on how the function of single neurons can decline with age.
In the Beckstead lab, we study the communication between dopamine neurons and other cell types in the context of motivated behavior and dopamine-related diseases. Only after gaining a detailed understanding of how neuron-to-neuron communication occurs, under both normal and pathological conditions, will we be able to target these processes to better treat neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders. Further, a better understanding of how single neurons in the brain age will also inform treatment options in the very earliest stages of Parkinson’s disease, before symptoms become debilitating.