Correct neuronal growth during early brain development is crucial to creating appropriate neural network structures necessary for all brain functions. Work from our laboratory and others finds that neuronal activity, including that driven by natural sensory experience directs dendrite growth to create neural network structures optimally tuned to process that information. The period of neuronal growth involves dramatic morphological plasticity as neurons rapidly extend and retract processes seeking correct neurons to contact. Once neurons mature, they largely loose the ability to change their arbor structures. Abnormal brain neuronal growth due to disease-associated gene expression or insufficient or excessive neuronal activity therefore may produce persistent neural network malformations and lasting dysfunction underlying developmental brain disorders.
In the Haas Lab we directly image neuron growth within the intact and awake embryonic brain. We image both rapid growth dynamics over seconds to minutes, and long term changes over days, to investigate mechanisms underlying normal and abnormal neuronal development.