Kristy Welshhans | Division of Research & Sponsored Programs | Kent State University

Kristy Welshhans


How do fingers type these words? How do eyes read them? How does the mouth speak, the legs walk, the tongue taste, the skin feel?

The simple answer is neurons, but how do neurons connect with one another so that the body can function properly?

How the body forms and, specifically, what underlies the development of the nervous system is a topic scientists continue to study. Scientists want to not only understand the basics, but also why things go wrong and how to fix the problems that result.

One Kent State professor has received a grant that might help her answer a few of these questions. In July, the National Institutes of Health awarded a three-year, $375,000 grant to Biological Sciences Assistant Professor Kristy Welshhans. This grant is entitled, “Molecular mechanisms regulating local translation during axon growth and guidance.”

“We’re interested in how neurons form connections,” Welshhans said. “During development, first the neurons are born, but then they have to connect to one another.”

The connections between neurons regulate everything from reflexes and senses, to learning and memory, as well as cognition.

Neurons connect with one another through long processes, called axons.  BIology professor Kristy Welshhans received a grant in July to help her study how the human nervous system forms.

During development though, how does the axon of a particular neuron know where to go?
At the tips of axons lie the answer to that question, and Welshhans’ primary focus: the growth cone.

“The growth cone guides the axon to whatever they need to make a connection with,” she said.

Still, the question remains: what tells a growth cone how to find its partner?

“Growth cones sense cues in the environment, like stop signs and street lights, that tell it where to go and what to connect with,” Welshhans said.

These cues take the form of proteins, which can either attract the growth cone to its target, or repulse it and tell it to go a different direction.

There are also proteins within growth cones that are necessary for growth cones to find their correct target.

“In fact, there are some proteins that need to be made specifically within growth cones for them to find their targets,” Welshhans said. “If you remove these proteins, they might not find their partner or they may connect with inappropriate targets.”

These proteins that are manufactured specifically within growth cones are the focus of Dr. Welshhans’ grant. The implications of understanding how connections are made during development is clear; this research provides insight into neurodevelopmental disorders like Down Syndrome, so that they can be better understood and possibly treated.

“If we understand how development proceeds normally, we can apply that knowledge to further our understanding of what goes wrong during disease,” she said. 

For more information on Kent State Research, contact Dan Pompili, at 330-672-0731 or