Dr. van Praag's Research
Henriette van Praag, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, Florida Atlantic University. Her research laboratory is located in the FAU Brain Institute on the MacArthur Campus in Jupiter. The van Praag lab aims to understand the beneficial effects of exercise on brain function and behavior. In particular, we focus on the running-induced increase in new neurons in the adult rodent dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, a brain area that is essential for learning and memory. In mice, voluntary wheel running more than doubles the production of new neurons in the dentate gyrus, in association with enhanced synaptic plasticity and memory function.
We aim to understand the underlying neuroanatomical, physiological and cellular mechanisms. To do so, we employ multiple approaches. Using behavioral assays that are tailored to the role of the dentate gyrus in memory function we have found that running enhances pattern separation, the ability to distinguish between two very similar stimuli or events, in association with increased neurogenesis.
We consider, however, that the proposed contribution of new neurons to behavior is not just a function of their quantity but also of the network they integrate into. We study the direct inputs to new neurons using a dual-virus method. In particular, we label proliferating progenitor cells in the dentate gyrus with retrovirus, followed by rabies virus as a retrograde tracer. Running substantially reorganizes the local hippocampal and distal (sub) cortical network of new neurons in a manner that benefits sparse encoding or pattern separation in the dentate gyrus. To begin to understand the underlying cellular mechanisms that elicit these changes in the brain we are investigating how muscle energy metabolism pathways can influence memory and adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Ongoing research is dedicated to further understanding the cross-talk between myokines and brain function, and to running-induced changes in neuronal circuitry and memory function.