The Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation recognizes Michael Fox, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, for his work to understand how brain cells communicate.
Fox studies synapses, the specialized structures that allow brain cells called neurons to pass information through electro-chemical signals.
Even minor synaptic abnormalities caused by trauma or disease result in devastating neurological conditions. Fox works to understand how synapses are formed to better understand brain diseases and also to take the mystery out of the brain’s ability to process visual information.
For example, Fox and colleagues discovered that early during brain development, neurons from the brain’s cerebral cortex extend axons to the edge of the part of the brain dedicated to processing visual signals – but then stop. Instead of immediately making connections, the cortical neurons wait for two weeks while neurons from the retina connect to the brain.
The scientists discovered that the retinal neurons use a protein called aggrecan to slow the cortical neurons down long enough for them to mature. Understanding how aggrecan controls the formation of brain circuits could help scientists understand how to repair the injured brain or spinal cord after injury or disease.
In addition, Fox and his team examined how retinal ganglion cells – neurons that live in the retina and transmit visual information to the visual centers in the brain – develop in a mouse model.
The theory of several terminals blossoming from the same retinal ganglion cell had not been proved, though, so the scientists decided to follow the terminals to their roots.
The scientists tagged the terminals with proteins that fluoresce different colors. The researchers thought one color, representing the single source of the many terminals, would dominate in the clusters. Instead, several different colors appeared together, intertwined but distinct—a “brainbow.”
The study contradicts some long-held notions about neural “pruning,” and the researchers are continuing their studies.
Fox was recently named a 2015 NARSAD Independent Investigator by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, which comes with a two-year grant. The foundation aims to recognize and support the work of the brightest and best minds in brain research.
Fox has served as the president of the Central Virginia Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience and has received the Marian Kies award and the Jordi Folch-Pi Award, both from the American Society for Neurochemistry.
In addition to being an associate professor with the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Fox is an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, an associate professor of health sciences, and an associate professor of pediatrics of the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
Fox completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University and received his doctoral degree from Virginia Commonwealth University.