Michael Fox

Michael Fox, PhD

Associate Professor, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

Associate Professor, Biological Sciences, College of Science, Virginia Tech

Research Program Summary

Synapses are specialized sites that allow information to be passed between neurons. Their importance is highlighted by the fact that even minor synaptic abnormalities, caused by disease or neurotrauma, result in devastating neurological conditions. Understanding how CNS synapses are formed is therefore essential to our understanding of neurological disorders. My lab is interested in understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms that drive two aspects of synapse formation—synaptic targeting and synaptic differentiation.

Our efforts to uncover mechanisms that drive the initial targeting of synapses focus on the visual system. We are interested in understanding how synapses are formed between retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), the output neurons of the retina, and target neurons within the brain. Despite monumental advances in this field, it still remains unclear how different classes of RGCs—of which there are more than 22—target functionally distinct nuclei within the brain. One brain region where class-specific targeting of RGC axons is most evident is the LGN—a thalamic relay nucleus that contains three structurally and functionally distinct subnuclei. Since different classes of RGCs target these subnuclei, we hypothesized that regionalized guidance cues must exist to direct class-specific axonal targeting. We have now identified candidate molecules that may act as targeting cues for class-specific retinal targeting and are now testing their necessity in retinogeniculate circuit formation.

Once synaptic partners have correctly targeted each other, both sides of the synapse must exchange developmental relevant signals that transform this immature connection into a functioning synapse (a process called synaptic differentiation). My lab is specifically interested in identifying such trans-synaptic organizing cues in the mammalian brain. We are particularly interested in the role of extracellular matrix molecules and growth factors in this process. Our previous studies identified roles for these classes of molecules in coordinating synaptic differentiation at the neuromuscular junction—a large peripheral synapse between motoneurons and muscle fibers. Based upon the bio-activities of these extracellular cues at the neuromuscular junction, we are now asking whether similar cues are necessary and sufficient to induce the formation of brain synapses.

For a full listing of Dr. Fox's publications, visit PubMed.

Education and Training

  • Harvard University: Postdoctoral fellowship
  • Virginia Commonwealth University: Ph.D., Anatomy
  • College of William and Mary: B.S., Chemistry

Previous Positions

  • Adjunct Professor of Kinesiology, The College of William and Mary, Virginia, 2002
  • Postdoctoral Fellow (Mentor - Dr. Joshua R. Sanes), Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004–2007
  • Assistant Professor, Dept of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VIrginia, 2007–2012

Awards and Honors

  • Jordi Folch-Pi Award, American Society for Neurochemistry, 2013
  • Young Investigator Award, International Society for Neurochemistry Annual Meeting, 2011
  • Marian Kies Award, American Society for Neurochemistry, 2004
  • University Leadership Award, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2003

Selected Publications

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