Unmasking and Exploiting Astrocyte Biology

Baljit Khakh will lead a project delving into the biology of an unsung type of brain cell, the astrocyte. Although almost half our brains are made up of astrocytes, we know far less about what they are and how they work than we do about neurons, a far more well-studied type of brain cell — and yet these cells may be linked to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Khakh and his laboratory team have recently developed new tools to better study the astrocyte, including optical and genetic approaches to visualize and manipulate astrocytes in a mouse brain as the animal reacts to different parts of its environs. In their project, they will study the suite of genes each astrocyte turns on or off, cell by cell, in an attempt to dispel the myth that all astrocytes are created equal. They will ask how astrocytes influence nearby neuron activity using novel methods created in the Khakh lab. And finally, they will apply these concepts and tools to determine how astrocyte activity is altered in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicts more than 3 million people every year in the U.S. alone. Khakh hopes his research project may identify new possible therapeutic targets for this devastating disease which currently has no cure. 

Affiliated Investigators

Baljit S. Khakh, Ph.D.

University of California, Los Angeles

Dr. Khakh is a Professor of Physiology and Neurobiology at UCLA. His laboratory has made important breakthroughs related to astrocyte biology. By developing new tools for glial research, they have discovered new forms of dynamic astrocyte signaling, unmasked neural circuit-specific astrocyte diversity and determined how these long-overlooked cells contribute to, and in some cases drive, neurological and psychiatric phenotypes.

Dr. Khakh was previously a Group Leader at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge (UK), a Wellcome Trust International Prize Traveling Research Fellow at the California Institute of Technology and a Glaxo-Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Bristol. He completed his graduate work at the University of Cambridge. Dr. Khakh has received several awards, including the Bill Bowman Travelling Lectureship, the EMBO Young Investigator Award, The American Physiological Society S&R Foundation Ryuji Ueno Award, the UCLA H.W. Magoun Distinguished Lectureship, and the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award.