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Ursula H. Winzer-Serhan, Ph.D.

Ursula H. Winzer-Serhan, Ph.D.

Associate Professor

Department of Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics
8447 State Highway 47
2100 Medical Research and Education Building
Bryan, TX   77807-3260

Phone: 979-436-0330
Fax: 979-436-0086


  • Ph.D., Cell Biology, University of Bremen, Germany, 1989
  • Research Associate, Dept. of Pharmacology, U.C.-Irvine

Research Interests

Gene-environmental interactions shape the brain in adults and during development.  My lab is particularly interested in exogenous factors that can permanently alter brain function and subsequently behavior.   Currently, we study the drug nicotine and how developmental exposure changes brain function, anatomy and behavior.  Nicotine interacts with nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR) which are ligand-gated pentameric cation channels found throughout the central, peripheral and enteric nervous systems. We mapped the expression of nAChRs in prenatal, postnatal and adult brain, using in situ hybridization and receptor autoradiography, and showed early and robust expression of nAChRs throughout development and in adults. We developed a neonatal exposure model in rats which mimics exposure during the third trimester of human brain development, and demonstrated that nicotine treatment during the first postnatal week results in increased anxiety and an altered balance of excitatory / inhibitory synaptic transmission in hippocampal slices.  Nicotinic receptors play key roles in neurological diseases such as schizophrenia, autism, ADHD, anxiety, depression, addiction, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. To identify the underlying mechanisms through which nicotine and nicotinic receptors alter brain function either during development or in adults, is a fundamental goal of our research and might shed light on developmental and age-related neurological diseases.

I participate in graduate training as a member of the faculty of the Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience and in the Texas A&M Health Science Center interdisciplinary graduate program in Biomedical Sciences.

Former Graduate Students: Luping Z Huang, Jong-Hyun Son, Pei-San Huang, Joanne C. Damborsky

On-going projects

1.   Evaluating the effects of chronic nicotine exposure on brain development.

We study the effects of developmental nicotine exposure using a variety of different approaches which include behavioral, anatomical (receptor autoradiography, immunohistochemistry), molecular (RT-PCR, in situ hybridization), and electrophysiological methods, in brain structures involved in cognitive functions, such as hippocampus and cortex.  The main focus is on excitatory glutamatergic and inhibitory GABAergic neurotransmitter systems, where we detect changes on an anatomical and functional level.

Example for the robust expression of alpha7 nAChRs in the hippocampus of a newborn rat. The mRNA coding for alpha7 is detected by in situ hybridization using a subtype specific probe (left side). The receptor protein is detected by receptor autoradiography using 125I alpha-Bungarotoxin, a ligand specific for the alpha7 nAChR (right side).

2. What is the role of nAChRs during aging?

During aging, nACHRs have a very different role. Activation of nAChRs engages anti-apoptotic intracellular signaling pathways resulting in neuroprotection and prevention against neuronal cell death in vitro and in whole animals. In humans, smoking is negatively correlated with the development of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.  Accordingly, mice lacking heteromeric nAChRs exhibit accelerated aging in cortical regions, critically involved in cognitive functions. The mechanisms are not well understood but might involve regulation of neurotrophic factors such as NGF, BDNF, IFGI, and FGF2, and activation of survival genes such as SIRT and Nampt, and Ku70, all of which have critical roles in the aging process.  We continue to address the question of how nicotinic receptors influence neurodegenerative processes during aging.

Publications (past five years)

  • Garza A., Huang L.Z, Son J.H., Winzer-Serhan U.H. (2009) Expression of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors and mRNA subunits in the enteric nervous system. Neuroscience; 158(4):1521-1529.
  • Son, J.H. Winzer-Serhan U.H. (2009) Signal intensities of radiolabeled cRNA probes used alone or in combination with nonisotopic in situ hybridization histochemistry. Journal of Neuroscience Methods 179, 159–165.
  • Son J.H., Winzer-Serhan U.H. (2009) Chronic neonatal nicotine exposure increases expression of neurotrophic factors in the rat hippocampus. Brain Research 1278: 1–14.
  • Huang, PS. Son JH., Abbott LC., Winzer-Serhan U.H. (2011) Expression and regulation of brain SIRT1 and its target genes by aging and neuronal heteromeric nicotinic cholinergic receptors. Neuroscience 196:189-202.
  • Mitchell MR, Mendez IA, Vokes CM, Damborsky JC, Winzer-Serhan UH, Setlow B. (2012) Effects of developmental nicotine exposure on decision-making in adulthood. Behav Pharmacol. Feb;23(1):34-42.
  • Damborsky, JC, Griffith, WH, Winzer-Serhan, UH. (2012). Chronic neonatal nicotine exposure increases excitation in the young adult rat hippocampus in a sex-dependent manner. Brain Res.; 1430:8-17.
  • Abbott, LC, Winzer-Serhan UH (2012). Smoking during pregnancy: Lessons learned from epidemiological studies and experimental studies using animal models. Review. Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 42(4):279-303.
  • Balaraman S., Winzer-Serhan UH, Miranda RC. (2012). Opposing actions of ethanol and nicotine on microRNAs are mediated by nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in fetal cerebral cortical-derived neural progenitor cells. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 36(10:1669-77.
  • Andersson RH, Johnston A, Herman PA, Winzer-Serhan UH, Karavanova I, Vullhorst D, Fisahn A, Buonanno A. (2012). Neuregulin and dopamine modulation of hippocampal gamma oscillations is dependent on dopamine D4 receptors. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A.; 109(32):13118-23. 
  • Damborsky, JC, Winzer-Serhan UH. (2012). Effects of sex and chronic neonatal nicotine treatment on NKCC1, KCC2, BDNF, NR2A and NR2B mRNA expression in the postnatal rat hippocampus. Neuroscience; 225:105-17.
  • Mendez IA., Damborsky JC., Winzer-Serhan UH., Bizon JL., Setlow B. (2013) Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptor Binding Predicts Choice Preference in Two Cost Benefit Decision Making Tasks. Neuroscience; 230:121-31.
  • DuBois, DW, Fincher, AS, Damborsky, JC, Frye, GD, Winzer-Serhan, UH (2013). Varenicline and Nicotine Enhance GABAergic Synaptic Transmission in Rat CA1Hippocampal and Medial Septum / Diagonal Band Neurons. Life Sciences; 92(6-7): 337-44. PMID: 23352971.

Selected Publications

  • Huang L.Z., Hsiao S.H., Trzeciakowski J., Frye G.D. and Winzer-Serhan U.H. (2006) Chronic nicotine induces growth retardation in Neonatal Rat Pups. Life Sci.; 78:1483-93
  • Huang, LZ, Winzer-Serhan UH. Chronic neonatal nicotine upregulates heteromeric nicotinic acetylcholine receptor expression without changes in subunit mRNA expression. 2006. Brain Research 1113:94-109.
  • Huang L.Z., Liu X., Griffith W.H., Winzer-Serhan U.H. (2007) Chronic neonatal nicotine increases anxiety but does not impair cognition in adult rats. Behavioral Neuroscience; 121(6), 1342-1352.
  • Winzer-Serhan U.H. 2008 Long-term consequences of developmental chronic nicotine exposure. Frontiers in Bioscience 13, 636-649. Review.
  • Son J.H., Winzer-Serhan U.H. (2008), Expression of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subunit mRNAs in hippocampal GABAergic interneurons. J Comp. Neurol. 511(2), 286-299.
Last edited by: chauhan 09/03/2014

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