NEWS | June 24, 2015

UC Davis awards $1 million for brain research

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

UC Davis is stimulating innovative, collaborative brain research with a new program offering funding for projects with strong potential to lead to impactful discoveries.

The research results from the president's call for a focus on science related to mapping the human brain. The research results from the president's call for a focus on science related to mapping the human brain.

BRAIN-STIM: the UC Davis Grand Challenge Initiative in Brain Science, launched in December with a request for proposals, is the direct result of President Obama’s call for a focus on science related to mapping the human brain. The UC Davis Office of Research, in partnership with the Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis, established the program to provide university scientists with a solid foundation that will help propel their work.

“Our goal with the BRAIN-STIM program is ensure that UC Davis researchers can conduct high-risk, high-impact experiments that will lead to significant innovations in treating neurodegenerative, behavioral and mental disorders,” said Harris Lewin, vice chancellor for research at UC Davis.

“With funding going to faculty at our three leading interdisciplinary centers conducting research in these areas — the MIND Institute, the Center for Mind and Brain, and the Center for Neuroscience — our campus is ideally positioned to be among the world’s leading institutions in the effort to map the human brain.”

Five recipients will receive $200,000 each over a two-year period:

  • William DeBello, associate professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior, endeavors to reconstruct brain circuits that underlie learning in the auditory system by developing analytical tools using a neuromorphic computing system developed by IBM.
  • Paul Hagerman, professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine, aims to get a better understanding of the molecular cause of fragile X-associated tremor/ataxia syndrome (FXTAS), a leading single-gene form of neurodegeneration.
  • Johannes Hell, professor of pharmacology, intends to pioneer a new method for detection of individual proteins in living neurons to map brain connectivity on a molecular level.
  • Kimberley McAllister, professor of neurology and neurobiology, physiology and behavior, seeks to develop an approach to identify molecular markers of the functional state of synapses that can be used to bridge connections and large-scale functional mapping of the brain.
  • Martin Usrey, professor of neurology and neurobiology, physiology and behavior, aims to establish the molecular identity of each of the 19 retinal ganglion cell types that give rise to the optic nerve and establish the functionally diverse visual pathways in the primate visual system.

All five teams were chosen from a rigorous review process led by an external panel of distinguished scientists. Each study has potential implications that would make a difference in their respective fields and beyond.

“Our work should provide us with several options for therapeutic intervention in FXTAS,” said Hagerman, who is part of the core faculty of the UC Davis Mind Institute. “Because FXTAS shares many clinical and molecular features with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, development of common targets for therapy would be of potential benefit to all three disorders.”

McAllister, of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, sees several potential significant outcomes, including dramatically improving the rate and accuracy of mapping the brain and a better understanding of learning and memory, as well as a lasting effect on our ability to diagnose and treat brain disorders.

“It is increasingly clear that abnormalities in the molecular composition of synapses are central to psychiatric and neurologic brain disorders,” McAllister said. “Identifying disease-specific changes in the molecular composition of synapses may allow us to better diagnose these disorders and identify knowledge-based therapies aimed at ameliorating their underlying synaptic defects.”

For Hell, whose work is focused on technology development, one goal is to provide new mechanisms for detection of PSD-95, a protein that is a key organizer of the connections between nerve cells in the brain. “If we can create peptides with dyes that only fluoresce when bound to a specific target protein, we can follow its path through a cell,” said Hell. “Such a method would revolutionize the detection of proteins.”

The funding will allow these interdisciplinary research teams to provide the proof of principle with preliminary data that is vital to secure additional funding from President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative.

“This award means a great deal because it allows us to forge new collaborations linking our neurobiology experiments with top experts in modeling, theory and neuromorphic computing,” said DeBello, of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience. “It’s likely too risky an idea to be funded via standard mechanisms, and we appreciate the opportunity offered by BRAIN-STIM to move beyond our comfort zone.”

“This award is exactly what we need to launch the project," Usrey said. "Collect preliminary data, and demonstrate feasibility, all of which will have a tremendous impact on our ability to procure federal funding to carry the project to completion. We have assembled an extraordinary team of scientists to carry out the work, and we are eager to get started.”