In 2019, 1 in every 8 people, or 970 million people around the world were living with a mental disorder, with anxiety and depressive disorders the most common. In 2020, the number of people living with anxiety and depressive disorders rose significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite of the high prevalence, to date, available therapies are fully effective in less than half of all individuals with these disorders, highlighting the need for better understanding of their pathophysiology and more effective treatment.

The main interest of our lab is how the environment (e.g. stress, diet) affects the mental health via regulation of glial cells and their communication with other cells in the brain. We are particularly interested in the function of oligodendrocyte, the only glial cells that produce myelin in the brain. Myelin is a lipid-rich layer wrapping around the axons, which ensures fast transmission speed and protects axons by providing nutritional and metabolic support. Recent studies from our lab and others have shown that oligodendrocyte development and myelination are highly dynamic processes that continue into adulthood and can be influenced by experience. Altered myelin structure and oligodendrocyte function have been shown in animals with cognitive deficits as well as individuals with compromised cognitive function. To provide better understanding of the environmental impact through oligodendrocyte function on psychiatric disorders, our lab uses animal models combined with molecular tools to identify ways stress change gene expression, and explores the possibilities of modulating oligodendrocyte function in promoting stress resilience.

Our Research In the News

Article:Promoting myelination as a strategy to rescue depressive-like behavior” (Atlas of Science, 2016)

Podcast:Not just about neurons” (eLife, Episode 60, 2019)

Research Areas

Myelin Dynamics and Oligodendrocyte Function in Stress- and Anxiety-related Disorders

Our understanding on the pathogenesis of stress-related disorders predominantly focuses on a neuron centric view of neuronal dysfunction. While the glial cells outnumber the neurons in the brain, their function and contribution to mental illness has been largely ignored. Our goal is to identify the cellular and molecular processes that are altered and disrupted in oligodendrocytes in stress- and anxiety-related disorders, and how these processes are implicated in the susceptibility of developing psychiatric disorders.

Epigenetic Regulation of Oligodendrocyte in Response to Environment Stimuli

Epigenetic mechanism refers to histone and DNA modifications that change gene expression without changing the DNA sequence. It has been identified as the ideal effector of environmental factors and gene regulation, which leaves long-lasting effect on the genome to influence mood and behavior. We have previously demonstrated aberrant epigenetic regulation in the oligodendrocyte precedes the impaired social behavior in mice undergoing social stress. How are the epigenome changed oligodendrocyte in response to environmental stimuli? How are these changes associated with the consequent behavioral adaptations?

Novel Strategies to Restore Mental Health and Promote Resilience

Currently anti-depressant therapies are heavily focused on the neurotransmitters and their receptors. Besides many of them exert their function through unknown mechanisms, the current treatment efficacy remains to be improved. We have previously shown that enhancing myelination and oligodendrocyte development is beneficial to restore social behavior impairment resulted from social deprivation. Our goal is to identify novel strategies of modulating oligodendrocyte function and myelination for promoting stress resilience.