Salk Institute
Stephen F. Heinemann
Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory
Stephen F. Heinemann

Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory

Steve Heinemann: Celebration of His Science
January 22, 2015
1:00-4:30 p.m.
Conrad T. Prebys Auditorium
Click here for more information»


Stephen F. Heinemann, a professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, studies the molecular details of communication among brain cells. The synapse plays a key role in communicating information between brain cells and it is likely that biochemical changes at the synapse underlie some aspects of higher brain function. Most plausible theories of learning and memory depend upon changes in the efficiency of chemical synapses, which probably involves changes in receptors, ion channels and neurotransmitter release. It is also now known that these molecules can be directly involved in human disease. Most drugs that are used to treat mental illness are known to work either on the receptors or the metabolism of the transmitters at the synapse. The work in the laboratory is focused on the molecular biology and physiology of the glutamate and nicotinic receptors expressed in the brain. A major goal is to understand the regulation of synaptic function and the molecular biology of learning.

Among other notable achievements, his lab has isolated a gene containing the blueprints for a receptor critical to learning and memory, and identified the receptors that respond to nicotine. Since neurological ailments, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's; drug addiction; and mental disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia, are fundamentally disorders of brain cell communication, this research will provide new insights into the treatment of these disorders. Discoveries in Heinemann's lab are currently being used by pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to develop drugs for stroke, epilepsy, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, as well as mental conditions, such as nicotine addiction, depression and schizophrenia.

"The work in our laboratory is focused on the molecular mechanism by which nerve cells communicate with each other at specialized connections, or synapses. Recent work in the laboratory has supported the idea that many diseases of the brain result from deficits in communication between nerve cells or synapses."

For close to a decade, pharmaceutical researchers have been pursuing compounds to activate a key nicotine receptor that plays a role in cognitive processes. Triggering it, they hope, might prevent or even reverse the devastation wrought by Alzheimer's disease. Researchers in Heinemann's lab, however, whose group first identified the brain receptors that respond to nicotine, have discovered that when the receptor, alpha-7, encounters beta amyloid, the toxic protein found in the disease's hallmark plaques, the two may actually go rogue. In combination, alpha-7 and beta amyloid appear to exacerbate Alzheimer's symptoms, while eliminating alpha-7 seems to nullify beta amyloid's harmful effects.

Alpha-7 is expressed all over the brain, in all mammals, which means that it is probably essential, but investigators have not yet discovered for what. Intrigued by earlier studies showing that beta amyloid seemed particularly drawn to the alpha-7 nicotinic receptors, Heinemann and his team hypothesized that the receptors mediate beta amyloid effects in Alzheimer's disease. To test their theory, they crossed mice engineered to lack the gene for alpha-7 with a mouse model for Alzheimer's disease, which had been genetically engineered to overexpress amyloid precursor protein (APP), an antecedent to beta amyloid. They then put the offspring through a series of memory tests. Surprisingly, those with both mutations—too much APP and no gene for alpha-7—performed as well as normal mice. The Alzheimer's mice, however, which had the alpha-7 gene and also overexpressed APP, did poorly on the tests. Pathology studies revealed the presence of comparable amounts of plaque in the brains of both types of mice, but in those lacking the alpha-7 gene, they appeared to have no effect. Similar disparities were evident in measurements of the synaptic function underlying learning and memory.

These findings, which suggest a completely different target for potential Alzheimer's drugs than those that have been tried, could have important implications for researchers seeking to combat the disease.

Selected Publications

Vetter, D.E., Li, C., Zhao, L., Contarion, A., Liberman, M.C., Smith, G.W., Marchuk, Y., Koob, G.F., Heinemann, S.F. Vale, W. and Lee, K.-F.: Urocortin-Deficient Mice Show Hearing Impairment and Increased Anxiety-like Behavior. Nat Genet. 2002 Aug;31(4):363-9.

Contractor, A., Rogers, C., Maron, C., Henkemeyer, M., Swanson. G.T. and Heinemann, S.F.: Trans-Synaptic Eph Receptor-Ephrin Signaling in Hippocampal Mossy Fiber LTP. Scence 296: 1864-1869 (2002).

Contractor, A., Swanson, G.T., Sailer, A. and Heinemann, S.F.: Kainate receptors modulate excitatory synaptic transmission in the CA3 region of the hippocampus. Neuron 29: 209-216 (2001).

Vissel, B., Royle, G.A., Christie, B.R., Schiffer, H.H., Ghetti, A., Tritto, T., Perez-Otano, I., Radcliffe, R.A., Seamans, J., Sejnowski, T., Wehner, J.M., Collins, A.C., O'Gorman, S., and Heinemann, S.F.: The Role of RNA Editing of Kainate Receptors in Symaptic Plasticity and Seizures. Neuron 29: 217-227 (2001).

Contractor, A., Swanson, G. and Heinemann, S.F.: Kainate Receptors Are Involved in Short- and Long-Term Plasticity at Mossy Fiber Synapses in the Hippocampus. Neuron 29: 209-216 (2001).

Mulle, C., Sailer, A., Swanson, G.T., Brana, C., O'Gorman, S., Bettler, B. and Heinemann, S.F.: Subunit Composition of Kainate Receptors in Hippocampal Interneurons. Neuron 28:475-485 (2000).

Contractor, A., Swanson, G.T., Sailer, A., O'Gorman, S. and Heinemann, S.F.: Identifiction of the Kainate Receptor Subunits Underlying Modulation of Excitatory Synaptic Transmission in the CA3 Region of the Hippocampus. Journal of Neuroscience, 20(22):8269-8278 (2000).

Vetter, D.E., Liberman, M.C., Mann, J., Barhanin, J., Boulter, J., Brown, M.C., Saffiote-Kolman, J., Heinemann, S.F. and Elgoyhen, A.B.: Role of a9 Nicotinic Ach Receptor Subunits in the Development and Function of Cochlear Efferent Innervation. Neuron 23:93-103 (1999).

Mulle, C., Sailer, A., Pérez-Otaño, I., Dickinson-Anson, H., Castillo, P.E. Burearu, I., Maron, C., Gage, F.H., Mann, J.R., Bettler, B. and Heinemann, S.F.: Altered Synaptic Physiology and Reduced Susceptibility to Kainate-Induced Seizures in GluR6-Deficient Mice. Nature 392:601-605 (1998).

Vetter, D.E., Mann, J.R., Wangemann, P., Liu, Jianzhong, McLaughlin, K.J., Lesage, F., Marcus, D.C., Lazdunski, M., Heinemann, S. and Barhanin, J.: Inner Ear Defects Induced by Null Mutation of the isk Gene. Neuron 17:1251-1264 (1996).

Elgoyhen, A.B., Johnson, D.S., Boulter, J., Vetter, D.E. and Heinemann, S.: Alpha9: An Acetylcholine Receptor with Novel Pharmacological Properties Expressed in Rat Chochlear Hair Cells, Cell 79:705-715 (1994).

Hollmann, M., O'Shea-Greenfield, A., Rogers, S.W. and Heinemann, S.: Cloning by functional expression of a member of the glutamate receptor family. Nature 342:643-648. (1989)

Goldman, D., Deneris, E., Kochhar, A., Patrick, J. and Heinemann, S.: Members of a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor gene family are expressed in different regions of the mammalian central nervous system. Cell 48:965-973 (1987)

Boulter, J., Connolly, J., Deneris, E., Goldman, D., Heinemann, S., and Patrick, J.: Functional expression of two neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors from cDNA clones identifies a gene family. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 84:7763-7767. (1987)

Ballivet, M., Patrick, J., Lee, J. and Heinemann, S.: Molecular cloning of cDNA coding for the gamma subunit of the Torpedo acetylcholine receptor. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 79:4466-4470. (1982)

Awards and Honors

  • National Academy of Sciences (USA)
  • National Institute of Medicine (USA)
  • American Academy of Arts & Sciences
  • Bristol-Myers Squibb Distinguished Achievement in Neuroscience Research Award, 1995
  • McKnight Award for Research, 1991-1997

Get Involved

Sign up for our email newsletter

Fill out my online form.
Salk Institute for Biological Studies
Street: 10010 N Torrey Pines Rd
City: La Jolla, CA 92037
Phone: 858.453.4100
Charity Navigator Rating
  • Salk Twitter
  • Salk LinkedIn
  • Salk Facebook
  • Salk Instagram
  • Salk Google+
  • Salk YouTube
  • Salk RSS Feed
© Copyright 2015 Salk Institute for Biological Studies | Privacy Policy About Scientists & Research News & Media Events Support