Our lab seeks to understand the mechanisms that underlie synaptic plasticity in the young and mature mammalian central nervous system. Our studies have focused on the thalamus, a brain region that regulates consciousness, sleep, alertness and the integration of sensory information. One area of deep interest is the establishment and optimization of thalamic circuits during development in this region. We have found that thalamic circuits exhibit robust changes in network connectivity over development that shapes the nature of the information transmitted. Our research may have significant implications for our understanding of neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, epilepsy and neuropsychiatric disorders.

The formation and refinement of synaptic circuits are fundamental to neurological function. The Chen lab has been dedicated to understanding the mechanisms underlying this process in the developing mammalian central nervous system. Our studies focus on the thalamus, a subcortical region important for the processing and relay of information targeted to different areas of the cortex. The thalamus regulates consciousness, sleep, and alertness, yet how thalamic circuits develop and how disruption of these circuits contributes to neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders are poorly understood. We use a combination of tools, including patch clamp slice electrophysiology, in vitro single unit recordings, in vivo optical imaging methods, genetically altered mouse strains, optogenetics and pharmacogenetics to probe the mechanisms and logic of neuronal circuit refinement. Our experimental model is the visual system, a circuit where sensory information can be easily manipulated, and resultant outputs monitored quantitatively with functional, anatomical and behavioral assays. We study the connection between retinal ganglion cells (RGCs) in the eye and relay neurons in the dorsolateral geniculate nucleus (dLGN, the visual thalamus) of mice, a synapse that shows robust synaptic plasticity during development. RGC axons initially map diffusely onto dLGN and then segregate into eye-specific layers by the removal of axon segments in incorrect layers. However, even after eye-specific layers are formed, retinogeniculate connections within the same layer continue to undergo a process of robust synapse elimination and strengthening (collectively referred to as synapse remodeling) to produce the precise connectivity that determines a mature thalamocortical neuron’s receptive field. Our research has revealed significant experience-dependent plasticity in the thalamus that influence the integration and transformation of information flow from retina to cortex.


Chinfei Chen received her MD. and PhD. from Harvard Medical School and completed her internship and residency in adult Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. She trained as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Roderick MacKinnon and later with Dr. Wade Regehr. She has received numerous awards including a HHMI Fellowship for Physicians, Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Award, Charles H. Hood Foundation Award and the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences.


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  1. Organization, Function, and Development of the Mouse Retinogeniculate Synapse. Annu Rev Vis Sci. 2020 09 15; 6:261-285. View abstract
  2. Cortical Feedback Regulates Feedforward Retinogeniculate Refinement. Neuron. 2016 Sep 07; 91(5):1021-1033. View abstract
  3. Untangling the Web between Eye and Brain. Cell. 2016 Mar 24; 165(1):20-21. View abstract
  4. A Mouse Model of X-linked Intellectual Disability Associated with Impaired Removal of Histone Methylation. Cell Rep. 2016 Feb 09; 14(5):1000-1009. View abstract
  5. Restoration of Visual Function by Enhancing Conduction in Regenerated Axons. Cell. 2016 Jan 14; 164(1-2):219-232. View abstract
  6. Refinement of the retinogeniculate synapse by bouton clustering. Neuron. 2014 Oct 22; 84(2):332-9. View abstract
  7. Prolonged synaptic currents increase relay neuron firing at the developing retinogeniculate synapse. J Neurophysiol. 2014 Oct 01; 112(7):1714-28. View abstract
  8. A role for stargazin in experience-dependent plasticity. Cell Rep. 2014 Jun 12; 7(5):1614-1625. View abstract
  9. Changes in input strength and number are driven by distinct mechanisms at the retinogeniculate synapse. J Neurophysiol. 2014 Aug 15; 112(4):942-50. View abstract
  10. Astrocytes mediate synapse elimination through MEGF10 and MERTK pathways. Nature. 2013 Dec 19; 504(7480):394-400. View abstract
  11. Visual acuity development and plasticity in the absence of sensory experience. J Neurosci. 2013 Nov 06; 33(45):17789-96. View abstract
  12. Metabotropic glutamate receptors and glutamate transporters shape transmission at the developing retinogeniculate synapse. J Neurophysiol. 2013 Jan; 109(1):113-23. View abstract
  13. Experience-dependent retinogeniculate synapse remodeling is abnormal in MeCP2-deficient mice. Neuron. 2011 Apr 14; 70(1):35-42. View abstract
  14. Wiring and rewiring of the retinogeniculate synapse. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2011 Apr; 21(2):228-37. View abstract
  15. Vision triggers an experience-dependent sensitive period at the retinogeniculate synapse. J Neurosci. 2008 Apr 30; 28(18):4807-17. View abstract
  16. Different roles for AMPA and NMDA receptors in transmission at the immature retinogeniculate synapse. J Neurophysiol. 2008 Feb; 99(2):629-43. View abstract
  17. Critical periods in the visual system: changing views for a model of experience-dependent plasticity. Neuron. 2007 Oct 25; 56(2):312-26. View abstract
  18. An RNAi-based approach identifies molecules required for glutamatergic and GABAergic synapse development. Neuron. 2007 Jan 18; 53(2):217-32. View abstract
  19. Distinct roles for spontaneous and visual activity in remodeling of the retinogeniculate synapse. Neuron. 2006 Oct 19; 52(2):281-91. View abstract
  20. Activity-dependent regulation of MEF2 transcription factors suppresses excitatory synapse number. Science. 2006 Feb 17; 311(5763):1008-12. View abstract
  21. Frequency-dependent modulation of retinogeniculate transmission by serotonin. J Neurosci. 2004 Dec 01; 24(48):10950-62. View abstract
  22. Presynaptic modulation of the retinogeniculate synapse. J Neurosci. 2003 Apr 15; 23(8):3130-5. View abstract
  23. Contributions of receptor desensitization and saturation to plasticity at the retinogeniculate synapse. Neuron. 2002 Feb 28; 33(5):779-88. View abstract
  24. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor modulates cerebellar plasticity and synaptic ultrastructure. J Neurosci. 2002 Feb 15; 22(4):1316-27. View abstract