Neuron-neuron communication is mediated by the regulated release of neurotransmitters. We are studying the molecular biology of chemical neurotransmission using genetic and physiological studies of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, which has an anatomically simple nervous system that uses most of the major neurotransmitters found in the human brain. We have specific interests in two types of neurotransmitters: monoamines and neuropeptides. Monoamines, such as dopamine, play critical roles in brain function and are associated with a host of neurological and psychiatric disorders including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and major depression. Neuropeptides play diverse modulatory roles in the brain where they function in circuits that generate complex innate behaviors. We aim to understand molecular mechanisms by which monoamine and peptide neurotransmitters function in the nervous system in order to identify new therapeutic targets for the treatment of diseases associated with their dysfunction.
As an Innovation Fund investigator, Ringstad and his lab are teaming up with the lab of Sharad Ramanathan, Ph.D., to investigate how the nervous system mediates behavior to avoid dangerous pathogens. Ringstad studies the nervous system using C. elegans, a free-living worm, and has developed a novel method to record neuron activity; Ramanathan is interested in understanding how neural circuits drive certain behavioral decisions. Together, they will use the C. elegans model, along with cutting-edge microscopy and statistical tools, to map how neural circuits are affected by infections. They will also seek to identify the genetic changes that accompany modification in the neural circuits. The importance of interactions between the nervous and immune systems and their impact on human health have become increasingly clear, and results from this project could provide important insights into mechanisms of behavioral change induced by infection.