Elucidating the role of cypin protein in various mental disorders to develop novel treatments
Neurons play an important role of communicating cognitive functions of the brain and producing an elaborate network of dendrites, whose extent of branching is influenced by factors like learning, which increases branching, or alcohol exposure or disease, which decreases branching. In conditions like mental retardation, autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease, there are fewer branches on neurons in the hippocampus and cortex, potentially reflecting the deficits in learning and memory so prevalent in these disorders. Dr. Bonnie Firestein, Professor of Cell Biology and Neuroscience at Rutgers University, studies the role of a protein called cypin as an important regulator of dendrite number in neurons involved in learning and memory. Cypin, also known as Gda, can help increase the number of dendrites and alter or increase the number of synapses or connection sites in neurons involved in learning and memory. Changing levels of cypin, therefore, can protect neurons from damage, and Dr. Firestein and her team use multiple novel tools including mice, cellular assays, and pharmacological assays to develop drugs to alter cypin activity and improve learning and memory, and identify biomarkers that will help diagnose disorders. These drugs are applicable to a number of neurological and neurocognitive conditions, including autism, traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s Disease.
After identifying cypin over 15 years ago, Dr. Firestein’s laboratory extensively characterized cypin’s influence on dendrite branching and spine stability, which direct the neuron on how to integrate incoming information. Dr. Firestein has also found that changes to cypin protein expression result in alterations at the cellular, network, and whole animal levels, and her laboratory currently works with medicinal chemists at Fox Chase Chemical Diversity Center to identify small molecules that target cypin and aid in recovery and restore cognitive function. In addition, Dr. Firestein trains a diverse group of students and postdoctoral associates, many of whom are women and underrepresented minorities. As part of their training, the students help to provide hands-on neuroscience teaching modules, including a sheep brain dissection, to middle school students. Other outreach efforts include producing Youtube video segments to excite younger generation of students (K-12) about neuroscience.
Current research includes:
- TBI and Stroke: Dr. Firestein and her team are collaborating with medicinal chemists to identify small molecules that change the activity of cypin and aid in recovery from TBI and stroke.
- Neurocognitive Disorders: Using stem cells that are differentiated into human neurons, Dr. Firestein and her laboratory are studying cypin’s role in autism and schizophrenia and determining whether drugs targeting cypin or proteins related to cypin can help alleviate some of the morphological aberrations in these cells.
- Neurodegenerative Disorders: Dr. Firestein also works to target cypin to protect neurons in the process of being lost at the onset of neurodegenerative disorders.
Dr. Bonnie Firestein is Professor of Cell Biology & Neuroscience at Rutgers University who specializes in Dendrite Branching, Schizophrenia, Stroke, Traumatic Brain Injury, Synaptic Plasticity, Learning and Memory, and Autism.
According to her parents, Dr. Firestein always wanted to be a scientist since she was young. During her childhood, her parents sold their house in Huntington, Long Island to the inventor of a widely used cell line, COS cells, for biochemistry, and she remembers their excitement as they said to her, “We’re selling our house to a scientist! You’ve always wanted to be a scientist!” Although she cannot recall what precipitated this, Dr. Firestein has been interested in science since she started school.
Dr. Firestein became interested in neuroscience when she joined a laboratory to perform her undergraduate thesis work. She attended the University of Michigan and was in the honors program, which required the writing of an undergraduate thesis. While she was a Cellular and Molecular Biology major, the classes she had taken inspired her to study cells rather than distinct molecules. In the meantime, she took a Physiological Psychology course and fell in love with the topic, and decided to do her honors thesis work with someone who was a professor in biological/physiological psychology -- and ended up working with a neuroscientist.
Although she was trained as a basic scientist, Dr. Firestein always wanted to apply hers skills to help others. The fact that it is so difficult to repair the brain drives her to work hard to answer basic questions about neuronal shapes and connections that can help people with conditions like mental retardation, autism, schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Outside of her research, she enjoys doing Crossfit and mixed martial arts and jujitsu. She absolutely loves dogs, especially beagles, and also enjoys spending time with family, watching movies, and singing.
For more information, visit http://firesteinlab.cbn.rutgers.edu/
In the News
The Daily Targum
Brain & Behavior Research Foundation
American Heart Association
Board of Trustees Award for Excellence in Research, 2013
NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Award, 2012
Marion G. Nicholson Investigator
Researcher of the Year, 2012
Northern New Jersey Regional Board of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, 15th Annual Affair of the Heart Ball
NARSAD Toulmin Independent Investigator Award, 2008
U.S. Patent No. US7338769 B2: "METHODS FOR IDENTIFYING AGONISTS OF CYPIN"
U.S. Patent No. US7790843 B2: "CYPIN POLYPEPTIDE AND FRAGMENTS THEREOF"
U.S. Patent No. US7888461 B2: "SNAPIN AND METHODS FOR REGULATION OF MICROTUBULE ASSEMBLY AND DENDRITE GROWTH AND BRANCHING"
U.S. Patent No. US8110348 B2: "METHOD AND COMPOSITIONS FOR THE DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT OF SCHIZOPHRENIA"
With Linda Brzustowicz. Published 02/7/12.
U.S. Patent No. US8283440 B2: "SNAPIN AND METHODS FOR REGULATION OF MICROTUBULE ASSEMBLY AND DENDRITE GROWTH AND BRANCHING"
U.S. Patent No. US8615311 B2: "MICROELECTORODE ARRAY, METHODS FOR PREPARING THE SAME AND USES THEREOF"
Published December 24, 2013.