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Wen-Jun Gao

Wen-Jun Gao, PhD


Department: Neurobiology & Anatomy


  • PhD - Shanghai Brain Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Dr. Gao is a professor in the Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy at Drexel University College of Medicine. Prior to coming to Drexel, he completed postdoctoral training with Sarah L. Pallas at Georgia State University and then with Patricia S. Goldman-Rakic and David A. McCormick at Yale University School of Medicine.

Research Overview

Areas of Research:

  • Functional plasticity in the juvenile and adolescent prefrontal cortex and cognitive functions associated with this cortical region
  • Cellular and synaptic mechanisms of neuronal network activity in the prefrontal cortex
  • Molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying synaptic transmission and monoaminergic regulation of the prefrontal function
  • Neurobiology of psychiatric disorders associated with the prefrontal cortex and limbic systems, such as schizophrenia, autism and ADHD

Lab Personnel:

  • Research Assistant Professor: Yanchun Li
  • Postdoctoral Fellows: Bo Xing
  • Graduate Students: Yelena Guchina, Brielle Ferguson, Sarah Monaco, Austin Coley, Shasha Yang, Linda Chamberlin, Erin McEachern, Genie Han and Katelyn Reeb

Visit the Gao Lab

Research Interests

Synaptic signaling and regulation of prefrontal neuronal circuitry and neurobiology of schizophrenia


Research Summary

The cerebral cortex, especially the prefrontal cortex, is the most complex brain region in the central nervous system. Elucidating its diverse functions represents a major challenge in neurobiology. We are interested in the neuronal mechanisms underlying the synaptic signaling and monoaminergic regulation in the prefrontal cortical circuitry, as well as the critical issues involving neuropathology of mental disorders and other neurological diseases. Specifically, we are taking the advantages of in vivo and in vitro preparations to examine the neuronal signaling in both normal animals and clinical models of psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and ADHD.

Work in the laboratory is currently focused in the following projects:

  1. Monoaminergic (dopamine and norepinephrine) regulation of synaptic transmissions and local circuitry in the prefrontal cortex
  2. How high-risk genes or epigenetic factors associated with schizophrenia affect the development of prefrontal cortex
  3. The roles of NMDA receptors in the schizophrenia pathological process
  4. Psychostimulant actions on the synaptic plasticity and trafficking of glutamatergic receptors.

Our research involves a variety of morphological, physiological, pharmacological, and molecular approaches designed to elucidate the synaptic mechanisms underlying the prefrontal functions. Morphological studies include single-cell labeling, neuronal reconstruction, and immunocytochemistry. Physiological, pharmacological and molecular approaches include multiple whole-cell patch clamp recordings, drug applications, western blotting, and real-time PCR in fresh brain tissues, acute brain slices, and cell culture preparations. These approaches are mutually supportive with a comprehensive integration across disciplines.

Selected Grants Funded

NIH R01MH085666 (Gao, PI)
Role of NMDA receptors in schizophrenia pathological processes

NIH R01MH101178 (Barry Waterhouse, PI; Gao, co-PI,)
Phenotypic diversity of neurons modulating executive function

NARSAD Independent Investigator Award, 2015 (Gao, PI)
Augmenting inhibition for cognitive function in schizophrenia

NIH R21MH110678-01 (Gao, PI)
Role of prefrontal cortical dopamine in aggression

Drexel Interdisciplinary Program Initiative/Pennsylvania Department of Health (Gao, PI; Barry Waterhouse, co-PI) CURE grant
Prefrontal cortical control of social behavior and aggression

Drexel Interdisciplinary Program Initiative/Pennsylvania Department of Health (Gao, co-PI; Denise Garcia, PI) CURE grant
The role of astrocytic Sonic hedgehog signaling in cortical circuit development

In the Media


Selected/Recent Publications

"A Clinically-Relevant Dose of Methylphenidate Enhances Synaptic Inhibition in the Juvenile Rat Prefrontal Cortex"
Kimberly Urban, Yan-Chun Li, Bo Xing, Wen-Jun Gao
Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome & Addiction Science, in press (2017)

"Juvenile Treatment with a Novel mGluR2 Agonist/mGluR3 Antagonist Compound, LY395756, Reverses Learning Deficits and Cognitive Flexibility Impairments in Adults in A Neurodevelopmental Model of Schizophrenia"
Meng-Lin Li, Yelena Gulchina, Sarah A. Monaco, Bo Xing, Brielle R. Ferguson, Yan-Chun Li, Feng Li, Xi-Quan Hu , Wen-Jun Gao
Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 140:52-61 (2017)

"GSK3β hyperactivity during an early critical period impairs prefrontal synaptic plasticity and induces lasting deficits in spine morphology and working memory"
Bo Xing, Yan-Chun Li and Wen-Jun Gao
Neuropsychopharmacology, 41(13) (2016)

"Disruption of Akt signaling decreases dopamine sensitivity in modulation of inhibitory synaptic transmission in rat prefrontal cortex" [PDF]
Yan-Chun Li, Sha-sha Yang and Wen-Jun Gao
Neuropharmacology, 108:403-414 (2016)

"Norepinephrine versus Dopamine and their Interaction in Modulating Synaptic Function in the Prefrontal Cortex" [PDF]
Bo Xing, Yan-Chun Li and Wen-Jun Gao
Brain Research 1641 (Pt B):217-233 (invited review, 2016)

"LY395756, an mGluR2 agonist and mGluR3 antagonist, enhances NMDA receptor expression and function in the normal adult rat prefrontal cortex, but fails to improve working memory and reverse MK801-induced working memory impairment" [PDF]
Meng-Lin (Merry) Li, Shasha Yang, Bo Xing, Brielle Ferguson, Yelena Gulchina, Yan-chun Li, Feng Li*, Xi-Quan Hu* and Wen-Jun Gao*
Experimental Neurology 273:190-201 (2015)

"NR2B subunit in the prefrontal cortex: A double-edged sword for working memory function and psychiatric disorders" [PDF]
Sarah A. Monaco#, Yelena Gulchina# and Wen-Jun Gao (# These authors contributed equally)
Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 56:127-138 (2015)

"Perspectives on the mGluR2/3 agonists as a therapeutic target for schizophrenia: Still promising or a dead end?" [PDF]
Meng-Lin (Merry) Li, Xi-Quan Hu, Feng Li and Wen-Jun Gao
Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry 60:66-76 (review, 2015)

"Development of thalamocortical connections between the mediodorsal nucleus of the thalamus and the prefrontal cortex and its implication in executive and cognitive function" [PDF]
Brielle R. Ferguson and Wen-Jun Gao
Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(1027):1-10 (invited review, 2015)

"Heterogeneous Organization of the Locus Coeruleus Projections to Prefrontal and Motor Cortices" [PDF]
Daniel J. Chandler, Wen-Jun Gao and Barry D. Waterhouse
PNAS, 111(18):6816-6821 (2014)

"New Perspectives on Catecholaminergic Regulation of Executive Circuits: Evidence for Independent Modulation of Prefrontal Functions by Midbrain Dopaminergic and Noradrenergic Neurons" [PDF]
Daniel J. Chandler, Barry D. Waterhouse and Wen-Jun Gao
Frontiers in Neural Circuits, 8:53 (invited review, May 23, 2014)

"Performance enhancement at the cost of potential brain plasticity: neural ramifications of nootropic drugs in the healthy developing brain" [PDF]
Kimberly R. Urban and Wen-Jun Gao
Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 8:38 (invited review, May 13, 2014)

"Gestational methylazoxymethanol (MAM) exposure leads to NMDAR dysfunction in hippocampus during early development and lasting deficits in learning"
Melissa A. Snyder, Alicia E. Adelman, and Wen-Jun Gao 
Neuropsychopharmacology, 38(2):328-40 (Jan 2013)

"Evolution of the Study of Methylphenidate and its Actions on the Adult versus Juvenile Brain"
Kimberly R. Urban and Wen-Jun Gao
Journal of Attention Disorders, published online (August 24, 2012)

"Hyperdopaminergic Modulation of Inhibitory Transmission Is Dependent on GSK-3β Signaling-Mediated Trafficking of GABAa Receptors"
Yan-Chun Li, Min-Juan Wang, and Wen-Jun Gao
Journal of Neurochemistry, 122(2):308-320 (July 2012)

"Distinct age-dependent effects of methylphenidate on developing and adult prefrontal neurons"
Kimberly Urban, Barry Waterhouse, and Wen-Jun Gao
Biological Psychiatry, 72(10):880-8 (November 15, 2012)

"Prolonged exposure to NMDAR antagonist induces cell-type specific changes of glutamatergic receptors in rat prefrontal cortex"
Huai-Xing Wang and Wen-Jun Gao
Neuropharmacology 62:1808-1822 (2012)

"D2 receptor overexpression in the striatum leads to a deficit in inhibitory transmission and dopamine sensitivity in prefrontal cortex"
Yan-Chun Li, Christoph Kellendonk , Eleanor H. Simpson, Eric R. Kandel, Wen-Jun Gao
PNAS, 108(29): 12107-112. Commentary in Schizophrenia Research Forum (2011)

"Experimental strategies for investigating drug actions in ADHD and related attention disorders"
Agster K, Clark B, Gao WJ, Shumsky J, Wang HX, Berridge C and Waterhouse B
Anatomical Record, 294:1698-1712 (invited review, 2011)

"Group II metabotropic glutamate receptor agonist ameliorates MK-801-induced dysfunction of NMDA receptors via Akt/GSK-3b pathway"
Dong Xi*, Yan-Chun Li*, Melissa A. Snyder*, Ruby Y. Gao, Alicia E. Adelman, Wentong Zhang, Jed S. Shumsky, and Wen-Jun Gao (*these authors contribute equally)
Neuropsychopharmacology. 36:1260-1274  (2011)

"GSK-3 and hyperdopaminergic behaviors"
Yan-Chun Li and Wen-Jun Gao
Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 35:645-654 (2011)

"Development of calcium-permeable AMPA receptors and their correlation with NMDA receptors in fast-spiking interneurons of rat prefrontal cortex"
Huai-Xing Wang and Wen-Jun Gao
The Journal of Physiology, 588(15):2823-2838 (2010)
selected for Faculty of 1000 Medicine ( and evaluated by Dr. Antonio Pisani.

"Dopamine D1 receptor-mediated NMDA receptor insertion depends on Fyn but not Src kinase pathway in prefrontal cortical neurons"
Jian-Li Hu*, Gang Liu*, Yan-Chun Li*, Wen-Jun Gao, Yue-Qiao Huang (*these authors contribute equally)
Molecular Brain, 3:20 (2010)

"Dopamine D1 receptor-mediated enhancement of NMDA receptor trafficking requires rapid PKC-dependent synaptic insertion in the prefrontal neurons"
Yan-Chun Li*, Gang Liu*, Jian-Li Hu*, Wen-Jun Gao* and Yue-Qiao Huang*  (*these authors contribute equally)
The Journal of Neurochemistry. 114:62-73  (2010)

"Activation of GSK-3b is required for hyperdopamine and D2 receptor mediated inhibition of synaptic NMDA receptor function in the rat prefrontal cortex"
Yan-Chun Li, Dong Xi, Joy Roman, Yue-Qiao Huang,  and Wen-Jun Gao
Journal of Neuroscience, 29(49):15551-15563 (2009)

"Role of dysbindin in dopamine receptor trafficking and cortical GABA function"
Ji Y, Yang F, Papaleo F, Wang HX, Gao WJ, Weinberger DR, Lu B
PNAS, 106:19593-19598 (2009)

"Dizocilpine (MK-801) induces distinct changes of N-methyl-d-aspartic acid receptor subunits in parvalbumin-containing interneurons in young adult rat prefrontal cortex"
Xi D , Zhang W, Wang HX, Stradtman GG III and Gao WJ
Int J Neuropsychopharmacol, 12:1395-1408 (2009)

"Cell-type specific development of NMDA receptors in the interneurons of rat prefrontal cortex"
Wang HX and Gao WJ
Neuropsychopharmacology, 34(8):2028-2040 (2009)

"NMDA receptor subunit expression in GABAergic interneurons in the prefrontal cortex: application of laser microdissection technique"
Xi D, Keeler B, Zhang W, Houle JD, and Gao WJ
Journal of Neuroscience Method, 176:172-181, 2009

"A specialized NMDA receptor function in the recurrent microcircuitry of the adult prefrontal cortex"
Wang HX, Stradtman GG III, Wang X-J, and Gao WJ
PNAS, 105(43):16791-16796, 2008

"Acute clozapine suppresses synchronized pyramidal synaptic network activity by increasing inhibition in the prefrontal cortex"
Gao WJ
The Journal of Neurophysiology 97:1196-1208, 2007

Recent Reviews and Book Chapters

"Evolution of the Study of Methylphenidate and its Actions on the Adult versus Juvenile Brain"
Kimberly R. Urban and Wen-Jun Gao
Journal of Attention Disorders (in press, 2012)

"The unique properties of the prefrontal cortex and mental illness"
Wen-Jun Gao*, Huai-Xing Wang, Melissa A. Snyder, and Yan-Chun Li
In When Things Go Wrong – Diseases and Disorders of the Human Brain, edited by Theo Mantamadiotis, Intech Publisher (2012)

"GSK-3 and hyperdopaminergic behaviors"
Yan-Chun Li and Wen-Jun Gao
Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 35:645-654 (2011)

"Experimental strategies for investigating drug actions in ADHD and related attention disorders"
Agster K, Clark B, Gao WJ, Shumsky J, Wang HX, Berridge C and Waterhouse B
Anatomical Record, 294:1698-1712 (invited review, 2011)

"Dopaminergic and Glutamatergic Dysfunctions in the Neuropathophysiology of Schizophrenia"
Gao WJ
In Dopamine: Functions, Regulation and Health Effects, edited by Endo Kudo and Yuriko Fujii. Nova Publishers (2011)

Contact Information

Research Office

Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy
2900 W. Queen Lane
Philadelphia, PA 19129
Phone: 215.991.8907
Fax: 215.843.9082