Neuroscience research gets big boost – almost $10 million

Grant for a new interdisciplinary center builds infrastructure and supports five rising stars at University

12/3/2012 - By: Claudene Wharton
Pre-med student Sierra Kreamer-Hope Sierra Kreamer-Hope, a senior pre-med student, completes a computer-based memory task while receiving transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). Researchers at the University are studying how tDCS may be used to affect working memory performance. Photo by Ryan Tanoue, who earned his master’s degree in psychology at the University.

The University of Nevada, Reno has been awarded a highly competitive program grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, to establish a Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) in "Integrative Neuroscience." COBRE grants are designed to build the resources and faculty that will allow a university to become a leading force in important areas of biomedical science. Programs awarded the grants are expected to have significant expertise already established in the area of study, and the awarding of this grant is recognition of the University's quality, growing program in neuroscience.

The new COBRE at the University will bring together established researchers from many units on campus who are using diverse approaches to understand the brain and neurological disorders, and will provide major funding for five promising junior faculty to begin to build a critical mass of expertise in neuroscience research. The grant will also bring the facilities and resources that will provide researchers at the University access to modern, state-of-the-art technologies for imaging neural activity.

The project is interdisciplinary and includes researchers from the College of Liberal Arts, College of Science, College of Engineering, School of Community Health Sciences and University of Nevada School of Medicine. It will bring together work from cognitive neuroscience, developmental neurobiology and cellular neuroscience, bridging and cross-fertilizing units that have already developed teams of focused expertise in neuroscience. An interdisciplinary neuroscience major was established at the University four years ago, and has a current enrollment of almost 200 students. Faculty such as the five "rising stars" supported by the new COBRE grant have greatly contributed to the major's success and rapid growth.

"We have an exceptional group of neuroscience faculty hired over the past few years in psychology, biology, biomedical engineering and the School of Medicine," said Michael Webster, principal investigator of the project and psychology professor at the University. "The potential is enormous for building on this foundation to make UNR a major player in the field."

Although the disciplines and methodology may differ considerably, with some using neuroimaging and others using genetic studies of fruit flies or nematodes for example, the five funded research projects are all looking to make discoveries that can help people in meaningful ways, such as helping improve their memories or sleep better. Important advances in neuroscience have often come from bridging diverse approaches, and the Integrative Neuroscience Center will foster collaboration and translational research, research that can be moved from the lab to the clinic.

The five junior faculty whose projects will be supported by the new COBRE grant will each be mentored by two senior faculty members. The grant also provides support for administrative and research support staff, and will support several postdoctoral and graduate students. Moreover, as the currently supported faculty advance to independent federal funding, the COBRE will be in place to attract and support new faculty investigators at the University, growing the pool of talent in this important field. The University is in the process of hiring new faculty in the neurosciences that could become future COBRE investigators.

The five currently funded faculty members and their projects include:

  • Marian Berryhill, assistant professor of psychology, focuses on episodic and working memory research, using neuropsychological (patient-based), neuroimaging (MRI) and neurostimulation. She will explore the neural basis of working memory and the potential use of neuroimaging and neurostimulation techniques to help the aging and injured with their working, or short-term, memory.
  • Gideon Caplovitz, assistant professor of psychology, focuses on visual perception and visual awareness research to explore why we see things the way we do, and what this tells us about how our brains work. He will explore spatiotemporal integration in the visual system in normal participants and perceptual deficits in sleep-restricted or brain-injured patients.
  • Alexander van der Linden, assistant professor in biology, studies the genetics of sensory and molecular mechanisms in nematodes (small worms) to conduct research on the circadian clock, the internal clock that regulates many of our biological functions. He will explore the molecular and neural circuits controlling circadian rhythms and their implications for sleep disorders and associated neural impairments, including strokes.
  • Alex Keene, assistant professor of biology, studies gene regulation and behavior in Drosophila (small flies) to understand why we sleep, how our body regulates sleep and how sleep deprivation affects memory. He will explore the neural mechanisms underlying memory loss induced by sleep deprivation.
  • Xiaoshan Zhu, assistant professor of electrical and biomedical engineering, conducts research in nanoparticles and nanofabrication and their applications in biosensing. Application of biosensing to monitor neural processes represents an emerging field, and his project will explore the application of nanobiosensing to potentially detect, and then treat, neural damage.

The Integrative Neuroscience Center will build additional infrastructure at the University several ways. It will provide for training of faculty to use and analyze neural imaging technologies, including MRI. A computer lab will be established at the University for analyzing images, and until the University is able to obtain MRI equipment of its own, it will collaborate with UC Davis to take advantage of their facilities. According to Webster, this technology has become widely used across many disciplines, and thus can help promote research throughout the campus.

"This technology has really revolutionized many areas of research," Webster said. "For example, fields that are not traditionally associated with neuroscience, like political science and economics or art, are now using MRI to find out more about how people make decisions, and how these decisions are encoded by different parts of the brain."

The COBRE will provide campus-wide access to these important tools to help build the demand for an eventual on-campus scanning facility. In addition, the project will build and maintain a database that will allow researchers to identify and recruit participants they need for their research. Currently, the lack of such a database provides a roadblock to many research projects that could move their current research into application, which is the ultimate goal - finding ways to help people with neurological problems and disorders.

"We fully appreciate the importance of developing our capabilities in the field of neuroscience," said University President Marc Johnson. "The investments we make in this program will increase the quality and impact of our institution, opening up new opportunities not only for our students and researchers, but also for northern Nevada. These investments bring resources, technology and economic development opportunities to our community."

Besides the hiring and support of faculty contributing to the neuroscience program over the past four years, the University is pledging additional support of the program over the next five years, including:

  • An additional full-time faculty position in psychology with research background in cognitive neuroscience using MRI technology.
  • Office and lab space to house the computers and facilities for analyzing and storing neural images, including MRI, and for maintaining and administering the patient database.
  • Funding of $426,000 for two neuroimaging systems that will allow immediate on-campus access to two powerful techniques for monitoring human brain activity.
  • Support to establish an on-campus MRI facility and a full-time faculty position to serve as director for the facility. The University's Office of the Vice President for Research will contribute $500,000 for the MRI facility, and philanthropic and grant funds will provide the rest of the funding.
  • Funding of $35,000 each of the five years from the University's Office of the Vice President for Research to be used by the project's director for basic and unforeseen program costs.

The Integrative Neuroscience Center is the third COBRE program currently underway at the University and the University of Nevada School of Medicine, which is the most any institution is allowed at any one time in the competitive national program. COBRE projects aim to strengthen the institution's biomedical research capacity through support and development of interdisciplinary research faculty, as well as enhancement of biomedical research infrastructure.


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