Takao Hensch, PhD
Director of Conte Center at Harvard
Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University
Professor of Neurology, Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School
Email: hensch@mcb.harvard.edu
Lab website: http://henschlab.mcb.harvard.edu/

Much of our adult behavior reflects the neural circuits sculpted by experience in infancy and early childhood. At no other time in life does the surrounding environment so potently shape brain function – from basic motor skills, sensation or sleep to higher cognitive processes like language. How this plasticity waxes and wanes with age carries an impact far beyond neuroscience, including education policy, therapeutic approaches to developmental disorders or strategies for recovery from brain injury in adulthood.

Our laboratory explores the mechanisms underlying critical periods of brain development. Research is aimed at the interface between cell biology and neuroscience - applying cellular/molecular techniques to elucidate complex neural systems. We have achieved the first direct control over critical period timing in the visual system (Hensch 2005). By manipulating inhibitory transmission in the neocortex, amblyopic effects of deprivation are delayed (by gene-targeted reduction of GABA synthesis) or accelerated (by cortical infusion of a positive GABA receptor modulator, diazepam).

A major goal now is to establish the generality of this principle of excitatory-inhibitory balance across brain regions and systems. Remarkably, a specific, local inhibitory circuit may drive critical period onset in visual cortex. Downstream of this trigger lies an extracellular proteolytic cascade and structural reorganizations, which ultimately consolidate plasticity.

As part of the Conte Center, we are using behavioral and electrophysiological approaches to investigate critical periods in the development of prefrontal circuits, which may be altered in mental illness. By examining mouse models of disorders such as autism or schizophrenia, or of early life stress, and integrating our functional data on critical period plasticity with connectomic and genomic data from collaborating labs, we hope to understand more holistically how brain development is disrupted in mental illness.

About Professor Hensch
Takao K. Hensch is joint professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School at Children's Hospital Boston, and professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard’s Center for Brain Science. After undergraduate studies with Dr. J Allan Hobson at Harvard, he was a student of Dr. Masao Ito at the University Tokyo (MPH) and Fulbright fellow with Dr. Wolf Singer at the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research, prior to receiving a Ph.D. in neuroscience working with Dr. Michael Stryker at the University of California San Francisco in 1996. He then helped to launch the RIKEN Brain Science Institute as lab head for neuronal circuit development and served as group director (and now special advisor) before returning to the United States in 2006. Dr. Hensch has received several honors, including the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award both in Japan (2001 Tsukahara Prize) and the US (2005) as well as an NIH Director's Pioneer Award (2007). He currently directs an NIMH Silvio O. Conte Center for Basic Mental Health Research at Harvard. He is co-chief editor of Frontiers in Neural Circuits and serves on the editorial board of various other journals, including the Journal of Neuroscience, Neural Development, Neuroscience Research, and Neuron.

Recent Publications

Cell-specific regulation of NMDA receptor maturation by MECP2 in cortical circuits.
Mierau SB, Patrizi A, Hensch TK, Fagiolini M.
Biol Psychiatry. In Press. Available online 2015 Jun 5.

Targeting Oxidative Stress and Aberrant Critical Period Plasticity in the Developmental Trajectory to Schizophrenia.
Do KQ, Cuenod M, Hensch TK.
Schizophr Bull. 2015 Jun 1. pii: sbv065. [Epub ahead of print]

Prenatal antidepressant exposure associated with CYP2E1 DNA methylation change in neonates.
Gurnot C, Martin-Subero I, Mah SM, Weikum W, Goodman SJ, Brain U, Werker JF, Kobor MS, Esteller M, Oberlander TF, Hensch TK.
Epigenetics. 2015 Apr 18:1-12. [Epub ahead of print] 

Clock Genes Control Cortical Critical Period Timing.
Kobayashi Y, Ye Z, Hensch TK.
Neuron. 2015 Apr 8;86(1):264-75. 

Prolonged Period of Cortical Plasticity upon Redox Dysregulation in Fast-Spiking Interneurons.
Morishita H, Cabungcal JH, Chen Y, Do KQ, Hensch TK.
Biol Psychiatry. 2015 Jan 24. [Epub ahead of print] 

Critical periods in speech perception: new directions.
Werker JF, Hensch TK.
Annu Rev Psychol. 2015 Jan 3;66:173-96. 

Sensory Integration in Mouse Insular Cortex Reflects GABA Circuit Maturation.
Gogolla N, Takesian AE, Feng G, Fagiolini M, Hensch TK.
Neuron. 2014 Aug 20;83(4):894-905. 

Bistable parvalbumin circuits pivotal for brain plasticity.
Hensch TK.
Cell. 2014 Jan 16;156(1-2):17-9. 

Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch.
Gervain J, Vines BW, Chen LM, Seo RJ, Hensch TK, Werker JF, Young AH.
Front Syst Neurosci, 2013 Dec 3.

Balancing plasticity/stability across brain development.
Takesian AE, Hensch TK.
Prog Brain Res. 2013;207:3-34. 

A Theory of the Transition to Critical Period Plasticity: Inhibition Selectively Suppresses Spontaneous Activity.
Toyoizumi T, Miyamoto H, Yazaki-Sugiyama Y, Atapour N, Hensch TK, Miller KD.
Neuron. 2013 Oct 2; 80(1):51-63. 

Choroid-Plexus-Derived Otx2 Homeoprotein Constrains Adult Cortical Plasticity.
Spatazza J, Lee HH, Di Nardo AA, Tibaldi L, Joliot A, Hensch TK, Prochiantz A.
Cell Reports. Epub 2013 June 13. 

Perineuronal nets protect fast-spiking interneurons against oxidative stress.
Cabungcal JH, Steullet P, Morishita H, Kraftsik R, Cuenod M, Hensch TK, Do KQ.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 May 28;110(22):9130-5.

NMDA Receptor Regulation Prevents Regression of Visual Cortical Function in the Absence of Mecp2.
Durand S, Patrizi A, Quast KB, Hachigian L, Pavlyuk R, Saxena A, Carninci P, Hensch TK, Fagiolini M.
Neuron. 2012 Dec 20;76(6):1078-90.

Critical period for acoustic preference in mice.
Yang EJ, Lin EW, Hensch TK.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Oct 16;109 Suppl 2:17213-20.

Prenatal exposure to antidepressants and depressed maternal mood alter trajectory of infant speech perception.
Weikum WM, Oberlander TF, Hensch TK, Werker JF.
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Oct 16;109 Suppl 2:17221-7.

External Press Coverage
BBC World Service: The Forum 
2015 Interview for Special on Plasticity

The Elastic Brain
2015 Aeon Magazine article

A Pill For ‘Brain Youth’?
2014 NPR On Point with Tom Ashbrook Interview 

Toward a Pill That Helps Us Learn as Fast as Kids
2014 Article in The Atlantic

Neurodevelopment: Unlocking the brain
2012 Nature news feature

Damaged Baby Brains—and a Video-Game Fix
2012 Chronicle of Higher Education blog Percolator

Understanding the Brain's "Brake Pedal" in Neural Plasticity
2011 Scientific American article

Vision problems in Rett syndrome could serve as biomarker
2011 Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative story

"Lazy Eye" Treatments Provide New Insight on Brain Plasticity
2009 Scientific American article

Making an Old Brain Young
2008 Technology Review article

Plasticity: more than meets the eye
2008 Dana Foundation story

Video Resources
Shaping Neural Circuits by Early Experience
Prof. Hensch’s talk at the 2011 National Academy of Sciences Sackler Colloquium

Critical Periods and Brain Development
Prof. Hensch's talk at the 2011 One Mind for Research Symposium on Perception

Harvard & Children's Hospital Boston Stories
Clock genes time brain development
2015 Molecular and Cellular Biology Department news

Sensory processing problems in autism: Mice reveal brain mechanisms, treatment potential
2014 Boston Children’s research and innovations blog

Help for halting autism symptoms
2014 Harvard Gazette story

Choroid plexus a source of key factor in brain plasticity
2013 Molecular and Cellular Biology Department news

Visionary research on Rett syndrome
2012 Boston Children’s research and innovations blog

Shaping Music Preference in Mice
2012 Molecular and Cellular Biology Department news

Neurons in youth
2011 Harvard Gazette story on establishment of Conte Center

Breaking into the autistic brain
2010 Children’s Hospital Boston feature

Alzheimer’s drugs for lazy eye
2010 Children’s Hospital Boston blog Vector

Trigger for brain plasticity identified
2008 Children’s Hospital Boston news story