For the past 25 years, scientists in Randy Blakely's laboratory have studied the genetics, biochemistry and regulation of a class of brain proteins known as neurotransmitter transporters that if altered, can lead to major brain disorders. Neurotransmitters are small but powerful molecules secreted by nerve cells to excite or inhibit other brain cells. Transporters, acting as nano-scale vacuum cleaners, limit the availability of neurotransmitters, restraining their action.
Transporters for the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine are targets for major psychotropic drugs, such as antidepressants, cocaine and amphetamines. Blakely's team has identied the genes that encode these and other transporter proteins in multiple species, including worms, flies, mice and humans.
In humans, they have identied heritable mutations that modify transporter expression and function, elevating risk for depression, ADHD, and autism, as well as autonomic and neuromuscular disorders. With animal models expressing these mutations, Blakely's lab is pursuing how genetic changes can impact brain signaling and lead to changes in behavior. These novel models also provide a critical opportunity to develop and test new medications. For his work, Blakely has received numerous awards. He has trained over 30 graduate students and nearly 40 post-doctoral fellows, and has been recognized as a leading educator and scientific mentor. He holds a dozen patents for his gene discoveries and scientific methods and serves regularly on federal and foundation panels that review neuroscience programs nationwide.