COVID-19 Updates

Visit UC San Diego's Coronavirus portal for the latest information for the campus community.

Darwin Berg

Darwin Berg, PhD

Department of Biology

Contact Information

Phone: 858.534.4680

Location: Pacific Hall, Room 3212A

Mailing Address:
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Drive #0357
La Jolla, CA 92093

We are interested in synapse formation and the role of nicotinic cholinergic signaling in the developing nervous system. We have previously identified components required to build nicotinic synapses on neurons and are now examining their contributions to synaptic function and downstream signaling. A major new direction in the lab is the analysis of how nicotinic signaling contributes to neuronal development and innervation more globally. We have made the surprising discovery that nicotinic input helps drive the conversion of GABAergic transmission from excitation to inhibition during development in much of the nervous system. It appears to play a similar role for newborn neurons in the adult hippocampus, affecting their fate and dendritic fields. Moreover, we find that nicotinic activity appears to enhance glutamate synapse formation directly in the hippocampus. These results suggest profound effects of endogenous nicotinic signaling in neuronal development and integration into circuits.

Our laboratory takes a multidisciplinary approach. We want to identify the molecular players at nicotinic synapses and understand how they work. We also want to understand how these components interact in more complex ways to regulate circuit construction and system output. To do this, we combine molecular, physiological, imaging, and biochemical techniques, applying them both in culture and in vivo. Recent collaborations have also incorporated computational and ultrastructural analyses. And we are using viral constructs and mutant mice to manipulate nicotinic components in vivo during development and in the adult. This latter approach is enabling us to examine, for example, newborn neurons in adult hippocampus and evaluate nicotinic contributions to stem cell fate.

It is an exciting time to be investigating nicotinic signaling in the CNS. At the behavioral level nicotinic cholinergic activity has been implicated in a broad array of phenomena including cognition, memory formation, and arousal. It is also associated with numerous pathologies including Alzheimers disease, schizophrenia, and addiction. These physiological consequences of nicotinic activity offer intriguing windows into higher brain function while at the same time suggesting biomedical applications. How the known cellular events of nicotinic signaling relate to higher order function remains a mystery and presents an ongoing challenge. Molecular tools are now in place to make major advances in these areas.

UCSD Neurobiology is positioned in a large and stellar community of biological and neuroscience research including the UCSD Division of Biological Sciences, UCSD Medical School, UCSD Pharmacy School, UCSD Bioengineering, Salk Institute, Scripps Research Institute, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Burnham Institute, and numerous biotech companies. A tradition of collaboration and interaction here makes possible the best of research directions and training opportunities.

Campbell NR, Fernandes CC, Halff AW, Berg DK (2010) Endogenous signaling through α7-containing nicotinic receptors promotes maturation and integration of adultborn neurons in the hippocampus. J. Neurosci. 30: 8734-8744. (PMID: 20592195; PMCID: PMC2905643)

Fernandes CC, Berg DK, Gomez-Varela D (2010) Lateral mobility of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors on neurons is determined by receptor composition, local domain, and cell type. J. Neurosci. 30: 8841-8851 (and Journal cover). (PMID: 20592206; PMCID: PMC2913715)

Neff RA, Conroy WG, Schoellerman JD, Berg DK (2009) Synchronous and asynchronous transmitter release at nicotinic synapses are differentially regulated by postsynaptic PSD-95 proteins. J. Neurosci. 29: 15770-15779. (PMID: 200116093)

Zhang, J., and Berg, D.K. (2007). Reversible inhibition of GABAA receptors by ?7-containing nicotinic receptors on vertebrate postsynaptic neurons. J. Physiol. (Lond.), 579: 753-763.

Conroy, W.G., Nai, Q., Ross, B., Naughton, G., and Berg, D.K. (2007). Postsynaptic neuroligin enhances presynaptic inputs at neuronal nicotinic synapses. Dev. Biol. 307: 79-91.

Liu, Z., Neff, R.A., and Berg, D.K. (2006). Sequential interplay of nicotinic and GABAergic signaling guides neuronal development. Science 314: 1610-1613.

Coggan, J.S., Bartol, T.M., Esquenazi, E., Stiles, J.R., Lamont, S., Martone, M.E., Berg D.K., Ellisman, M.H., and Sejnowski, T.J. (2005). Ectopic neurotransmitter release at a neuronal synapse. Science 309: 446-451.

Liu, Z., Tearle, A.W., Nai, Q., and Berg, D.K. (2005). Rapid activity-driven SNARE-dependent trafficking of nicotinic receptors. J. Neurosci. 25: 1159-1168.

Conroy, W.G., Liu, Z., Nai, Q., Coggan, J.S., and Berg, D.K. (2003). PDZ-containing proteins provide a functional postsynaptic scaffold for nicotinic receptors in neurons. Neuron 38: 759-771.

Kawai, H., Zago, W., and Berg, D.K. (2002). Nicotinic ?7 receptor clusters on hippocampal GABAergic neurons: regulation by synaptic activity and neurotrophins. J. Neurosci. 22: 7903-7912.

Shoop, R.D., Esquenazi, E., Yamada, N., Ellisman, M.H., and Berg, D.K. (2002). Ultrastructure of a somatic spine mat for nicotinic signaling in neurons. J. Neurosci. 22: 748-756.

Chang, K., and Berg, D.K. (2001). Voltage-gated channels block nicotinic regulation of CREB phosphorylation and gene expression in neurons. Neuron 32: 855-865.

Liu, Q.-s., Kawai, H., and Berg, D.K. (2001). ?-Amyloid peptide blocks the response of ?7-containing nicotinic receptors on hippocampal neurons. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 98: 4734-4739.