Studying the ‘blue spot’ in the brain

Studying the ‘blue spot’ in the brain

Dr. Barry Waterhouse and his team research the brain's locus-coeruleus-norepinephrine system, its impact on movement and how it is linked to medical conditions such as traumatic brain injuries.

It’s “inescapably clear” that dysfunction of the brain’s “blue spot,” the nucleus locus coeruleus, is linked with depression, stress and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder and drug abuse, as well as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, said Dr. Barry Waterhouse, professor and chair of the Department of Cell Biology & Neuroscience at the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine.

Because of a bluish pigment produced by its neurons, the locus coeruleus was first identified in 1809 as a blue spot in the human brain. Using norepinephrine as its neurotransmitter, the locus coeruleus affects our ability to stay focused and attend to tasks throughout the day.

Barry Waterhouse, Ph.D.


Areas of expertise: Neurobiology of the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine transmitter system, traumatic brain injury

More information

What’s not entirely clear yet—what Waterhouse aims to discover in his research—is how the system works and why disruptions can lead to a variety of clinical conditions.

Waterhouse and his team have studied the anatomy, physiology and behavioral impact of the locus coeruleus system on cognition and sensory signal processing. Despite decades of research, Waterhouse explained, “there are still fundamental questions remaining about how the locus coeruleus works.”

Current research in the Waterhouse lab at Rowan-Virtua SOM is two-pronged. Its basic science component, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is a fundamental investigation of how the locus-coeruleus-norepinephrine system affects motor circuits in the brain that produce movement.

Supported by grants from the New Jersey Commission on Brain Injury Research and the Department of Defense, Waterhouse and his team are also looking for evidence of a link between traumatic brain injuries and damage or dysfunction in the locus coeruleus and norepinephrine systems. Their research is also supported through a new partnership with Virtua Health, which promises to further distinguish South Jersey as a regional hub for innovation, research and clinical discovery.

“A lot of symptoms in concussions and TBI look like damage to the locus coeruleus and the norepinephrine system,” Waterhouse said. “Fatigue, confusion, trouble with attention—these are all things you might expect if a head injury interferes with the normal operation of this system in the brain.”

Rowan University researchers are passionate about what they do. Find more at Meet Our Researchers.