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What do we do?
We study the function and development of neurons and synapses in the medicinal leech.

Why do we do the research?
Behaviors (in all animals) are defined and driven by the neural circuits that underlie them. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of neural circuitry, yet our understanding of them remains limited. At several levels we would like to know how circuits and synapses function, how do they change with age and experience, and how do they arise during development? Related to this is the issue of understanding the evolution of behavior by gaining insight into the evolution of developmental mechanisms that sculpt the circuits themselves.
Answers to these questions across levels of analysis can contribute insights into the nature of normal function as well as disease states and the repair of damage.

Why use the leech?
We study leeches for a number of reasons. For one thing, they are interesting animals with a rich complement of sensory and motor capabilities.
They also have neurons that we can see, identify and study directly using a variety of techniques. Since we are interested in studying neurons, synapses and circuits it makes sense to employ an animal in which we can readily do this cell by cell.
Although very accessible, the leech is of intermediate complexity. There are about 15,000 neurons in the CNS and there are many thousands more neurons in the periphery. Thus, we expect that developmental mechanisms that sculpt the leech would also be found represented in other complex systems.
Of course, we think leeches are cool.

How do we study these things?
We examine neurons and synapses directly using single-cell approaches that involve electrophysiology, anatomical tracing, probing with molecular markers and manipulating development by ablation, transplantation, and perturbation of signals. We employ in vivo and in vitro approaches as well as several levels of microscopy, biochemistry and molecular characterization. The two links below will take you to just a few examples of some of the work we do.

Circuit Assembly and Synaptogenesis Pathway Formation and Growth Cone Navigation

This page is maintained by John Jellies,
Department of Biological Sciences
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008