During development of the nervous system, neurons are generated from progenitor cells, adopt specific identities, migrate to sites distant from where they are born and form complex networks of connections with other neurons. This almost inconceivably complex task of building a functional nervous system is the subject of research in the field of developmental neuroscience.
At UCL, many internationally renowned
investigators work across the whole spectrum of neural development from
the initial specification of neural tissue, to the formation and
maintenance of functional neuronal circuits, to the development of
higher mental function in children and adults. For example, one of the
most poorly understood aspects of brain development is morphogenesis,
the process by which the developing nervous system takes shape. If this
fails to occur properly, the outcome can be devastating conditions such
as spina bifida (a failure of the neural plate to close into a tube)
and holoprosencephaly (a failure to properly separate the left and
right sides of the brain).
Research progress depends upon the
availability of tools and resources that allow experiments to be
performed. At UCL, there are many novel and powerful techniques being
used to study the developing brain. In particular, high-resolution
imaging is now central to many studies. In the small transparent
brains of developing fish embryos, it is feasible to watch every single
cell in the live animal and even in the more inaccessible brains of
mammals, various microscopic techniques allow visualisation of
processes at previously unattainable levels of resolution. Not only
can one observe neurons being born, migrating and extending axons
towards their targets, new tools allow one to image activity in the
neurons facilitating study of the development of functional circuits.