Fabian Fernandez
Assistant Professor, BIO5 Institute
Assistant Professor, Evelyn F Mcknight Brain Institute
Assistant Professor, Neurology
Assistant Professor, Neuroscience - GIDP
Assistant Professor, Psychology
Primary Department
Department Affiliations
(520) 621-7447
Work Summary
Fabian-Xosé Fernandez's work includes a focus on parsing the logic used by the circadian pacemaker to interpret multidimensional light patterns, developing light-emitting diode (LED) photo-stimulation protocols to improve mental and physical health across the lifespan, and understanding the role that nocturnal wakefulness plays in suicide risk and developing countermeasures centered around light exposure.
Research Interest
Fabian-Xosé Fernandez, PhD, Departments of Psychology and Neurology, McKnight Brain InstituteCircadian timekeeping is fundamental to human health. Unfortunately, under many clinical circumstances, the temporal organization of our minds and bodies can stray slowly from the Universal Time (UT) that is set with the Earth’s rotation. This disorganization has been linked to progression of several age-related and psychiatric diseases. Non-invasive phototherapy has the potential to improve disease outcomes, but the information that the brain’s clock tracks in twilight (or any electric light signal) to assure that a person entrains their sleep-wake cycles to the outside world is not understood. The central theme of my research program is to fill in this blank and to usher in an era where therapeutically relevant “high-precision” light administration protocols are institutionalized at the level of the American Medical and Psychiatric Associations to change the standard of care for a wide variety of conditions that impair quality of life. Of the conditions my lab is currently studying, we are particularly interested in how chronic and quick, sequenced light exposure can be designed to: 1. promote normal healthy aging and 2. strengthen adaptive cognitive/emotional responses to being awake in the middle of the night (12-6AM), a key interval of the 24-h cycle that we have associated with increased suicidal ideation and mortality. Our circadian work on suicide is done in very close partnership with the University of Arizona Sleep Health and Research Program directed by Dr. Michael A. Grandner.


Fernandez, F., Misilmeri, M. A., Felger, J. C., & Devine, D. P. (2004). Nociceptin/orphanin FQ increases anxiety-related behavior and circulating levels of corticosterone during neophobic tests of anxiety. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 29(1), 59-71.

Intracranial administration of nociceptin/orphanin FQ (N/OFQ) increases circulating concentrations of adrenocorticotrophic hormone and corticosterone in unstressed rats, and elevates the responsiveness of these hormones during mild stress. Furthermore, N/OFQ and its cognate receptor are both abundant in a variety of limbic nuclei, and stress exposure decreases neuronal N/OFQ content in forebrain neurons. In light of these and other findings, we examined the potential involvement of N/OFQ in regulation of anxiety-related behaviors in rats. In the open field, elevated plus maze, and dark-light neophobic tests, intracerebroventricular N/OFQ (1.0 pmole-1.0 nmole) increased the expression of anxiety-related behaviors. Specifically, N/OFQ increased the latency to enter, decreased the number of entries into, and decreased the time spent in the exposed or brightly lit environments of all three tests. N/OFQ also enhanced thigmotactic responses in the open field test. The effects of diazepam and of the benzodiazepine inverse agonist FG 7142 were also assessed in independent groups of rats. In all three tests, the behavioral effects of N/OFQ resembled the anxiogenic actions of FG 7142, and contrasted with the anxiolytic actions of diazepam. N/OFQ administration also increased circulating concentrations of corticosterone during anxiety testing, in comparison with the concentrations in vehicle-treated controls. We conclude that N/OFQ administration is anxiogenic, and elevates responsiveness of the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal axis during neophobic tests of anxiety. This supports the possibility that N/OFQ neurotransmission participates in processing of emotionally-salient and stressful stimuli, and suggests that normal functioning of the N/OFQ system may be important in physiological and psychological well-being.

Fernandez, F., Trinidad, J. C., Blank, M., Feng, D., Burlingame, A. L., & Garner, C. C. (2009). Normal protein composition of synapses in Ts65Dn mice: a mouse model of Down syndrome. Journal of neurochemistry, 110(1), 157-69.

Down syndrome (DS) is the most prevalent form of intellectual disability caused by the triplication of approximately 230 genes on chromosome 21. Recent data in Ts65Dn mice, the foremost mouse model of DS, strongly suggest that cognitive impairment in individuals with DS is a consequence of reduced synaptic plasticity because of chronic over-inhibition. It remains unclear however whether changes in plasticity are tied to global molecular changes at synapses, or are due to regional changes in the functional properties of synaptic circuits. One interesting framework for evaluating the activity state of the DS brain comes from in vitro studies showing that chronic pharmacological silencing of neuronal excitability orchestrates stereotyped changes in the protein composition of synaptic junctions. In the present study, we use proteomic strategies to evaluate whether synapses from the Ts65Dn cerebrum carry signatures characteristic of inactive cortical neurons. Our data reveal that synaptic junctions do not exhibit overt alterations in protein composition. Only modest changes in the levels of synaptic proteins and in their phosphorylation are observed. This suggests that subtle changes in the functional properties of specific synaptic circuits rather than large-scale homeostatic shifts in the expression of synaptic molecules contribute to cognitive impairment in people with DS.

Fernandez, F. (2018). Precision Light for the Treatment of Psychiatric Disorders. Neural Plasticity.
Fernandez, F., & Garner, C. C. (2008). Episodic-like memory in Ts65Dn, a mouse model of Down syndrome. Behavioural brain research, 188(1), 233-7.

Ts65Dn mice, like individuals with Down syndrome (DS), demonstrate a functional dissociation between explicit and implicit forms of memory, showing selective impairment in explicit or declarative learning tasks. Here, we explored Ts65Dn explicit memory deficits further by evaluating the ability of these mice to assimilate the temporal and spatial contexts under which previously novel objects had been encountered. We found that Ts65Dn mice could in fact form contextual representations of objects over the course of a few hours, contrary to their inability to discriminate object novelty over a more prolonged period of 24h. These results suggest that Ts65Dn mice might have particular difficulties in declarative tasks requiring long-term memory, presenting an especially important putative therapeutic target for pre-clinical and clinical DS research.

Torres, V., Barra, L., Garcés, F., Ordenes, K., Leal-Ortiz, S., Garner, C. C., Fernandez, F., & Zamorano, P. (2010). A bicistronic lentiviral vector based on the 1D/2A sequence of foot-and-mouth disease virus expresses proteins stoichiometrically. Journal of biotechnology, 146(3), 138-42.

Classic IRES sequences are notorious for exerting biased expression in favor of upstream coding regions when placed into polycistronic vectors. Here, we report the development of a bicistronic lentiviral system based on the 1D/2A sequence from the foot-and-mouth disease virus that is able to maintain tightly balanced control of upstream and downstream protein expression for several days at a stoichiometry very closely approaching 1.0. Our results suggest that the 1D/2A sequence can be optimized in an FUGW lentiviral setting to coordinate expression of multiple polypeptides, presenting a potentially valuable tool to signaling network researchers and to the gene therapy community.