Near the base of the brain lies a group of cells (neurons), small in number but weighty in influence, that make a chemical messenger called dopamine and release it in many 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. Flipped around, too much dopamine can lead to a slew of neuropsychiatric problems including anxiety, addiction, schizophrenia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The reason 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 neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and 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 Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, before symptoms become debilitating.