Like the splendid external world, the environment inside our body is constantly changing. The ability to monitor internal organ status by the nervous system is essential, ensuring an appropriate regulation of physiology and behavior to diverse body needs. What signals are critical for the communication between body organs and the brain? How are different organ cues being detected and processed? Are these pathways altered under certain disease conditions? The Chang lab uses molecular and genetic approaches including optogenetics and chemogenetics, virus-based anatomical tracing, and in vivo imaging to answer such questions. Our goal is to better understand the body-brain interaction, and develop novel neuronal-based therapeutic strategies for disease intervention.
The vagus nerve is a major conduit between body and brain that relays critical sensory information from the neck, chest, and abdomen, and controls basic autonomic functions of the respiratory, cardiovascular, digestive, and immune systems. Surgical, electrical, or pharmacological control of vagus nerve activity impacts numerous diseases. Our previous studies demonstrated that the vagus nerve contains intermingled sensory neurons constituting genetically definable labeled lines with different anatomical connections and physiological roles. Sensory neuron populations that control breathing and digestion were identified using a molecular deconstruction of the vagus nerve, and such information facilities our understanding of molecular mechanisms for physiological reflexes.