When good habits go bad: Neuroscientist seeks roots of obsessive behavior, motion disorders

February 16, 2013, Duke University

Learning, memory and habits are encoded in the strength of connections between neurons in the brain, the synapses. These connections aren't meant to be fixed, they're changeable, or plastic.

Duke University and neuroscientist Nicole Calakos studies what happens when those connections aren't as adaptable as they should be in the basal ganglia, the brain's "command center" for turning information into actions.

"The basal ganglia is the part of the brain that drives the car when you're not thinking too hard about it," Calakos said. It's also the part of the brain where neuroscientists are looking for the roots of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Huntington's, Parkinson's, and aspects of .

In her most recent work, which she'll discuss Saturday morning, Feb. 16 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston, Calakos is mapping the defects in circuitry of the basal ganglia that underlie compulsive behavior. She is studying mice that have a synaptic defect that manifests itself as something like obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Calakos' former colleague Guoping Feng developed the mice at Duke before moving to the McGovern Institute for at MIT, where he now works. Feng was exploring the construction of synapses by knocking out genes one at a time. One set of mice ended up with facial lesions from endlessly grooming themselves until their faces were rubbed raw. When examining synaptic activity in the of these mice, Calakos' group discovered that metabotropic glutamate receptors, or mGluRs, were overactive and this in turn, left their synapses less able to change. Scientists think overactivity of these receptors can cause many aspects of the Fragile X mental retardation.

"It's an example of synaptic plasticity going awry," Calakos said. "They're stuck with less adaptable ." Calakos is now using the mice to determine whether drugs that inhibit mGluRs can be used to improve their behavior and testing whether the circuit defects are a generalizable explanation for similar behaviors in other mouse models. This work may then lead to new understandings for compulsive behaviors and new treatment opportunities.

Explore further: Positive feedback in the developing brain

Related Stories

Positive feedback in the developing brain

May 16, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- When an animal is born, its early experiences help map out the still-forming connections in its brain. As neurons in sensory areas of the brain fire in response to sights, smells, and sounds, synapses ...

Researchers uncover steps in synapse building, pruning

November 16, 2011
Like a gardener who stakes some plants and weeds out others, the brain is constantly building networks of synapses, while pruning out redundant or unneeded synapses. Researchers at The Jackson Laboratory led by Assistant ...

Recommended for you

Epigenetics study helps focus search for autism risk factors

January 16, 2018
Scientists have long tried to pin down the causes of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies have expanded the search for genetic links from identifying genes toward epigenetics, the study of factors that control gene expression ...

Being bilingual may help autistic children

January 16, 2018
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often have a hard time switching gears from one task to another. But being bilingual may actually make it a bit easier for them to do so, according to a new study which was recently ...

No rise in autism in US in past three years: study

January 2, 2018
After more than a decade of steady increases in the rate of children diagnosed with autism in the United States, the rate has plateaued in the past three years, researchers said Tuesday.

Autism therapy: Brain stimulation restores social behavior in mice

December 13, 2017
Scientists are examining the feasibility of treating autistic children with neuromodulation after a new study showed social impairments can be corrected by brain stimulation.

Social phobia linked to autism and schizophrenia

December 11, 2017
New Swinburne research shows that people who find social situations difficult tend to have similar brain responses to those with schizophrenia or autism.

Odors that carry social cues seem to affect volunteers on the autism spectrum differently

November 27, 2017
Autism typically involves the inability to read social cues. We most often associate this with visual difficulty in interpreting facial expression, but new research at the Weizmann Institute of Science suggests that the sense ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.