SOM researchers win NARSAD Young Investigator grants

Three SOM researchers have won Young Investigator Grants from NARSAD: The Brain and Behavior Research Fund. Grant winners are John A. Allen, PhD, postdoctoral trainee, pharmacology; Sarah J. Hart, PhD, research associate, psychiatry; and Thomas L. Kash, PhD, assistant professor, pharmacology.

The grants are among 214 awarded by NARSAD this year from more than 1,000 applicants at research institutes worldwide. Receiving up to $60,000 over two years, NARSAD Young Investigators  pursue brain and behavior research related to schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, autism ADHD, and anxiety disorders, such as OCD and PTSD. Since 1987, NARSAD has awarded more than $274 million in 4,046 grants to 3,319 scientists mental health scientists around the world.

See below for summaries of the awardees’ research:

John A. Allen, Ph.D., will use a new technology and a new animal model to test whether GABA nerve cells are involved in schizophrenia. Among many hypotheses about schizophrenia, one suggestion is that it arises from biochemical changes in the brain involving the neurotransmitter GABA. The proteins that make GABA and the number of nerve cells that use it are decreased in schizophrenia patients. Dr. Allen’s lab has developed a new way to control the activity of nerve cells in mice. In this study, the new technology will be used in mice so that GABA nerve cells, and their activity, can be turned on and off. With these mice the lab will test if abnormal GABA nerve-cell activity results in schizophrenia-like symptoms and behaviors and if returning GABA nerve cell functions to normal can prevent symptoms.

Sarah J. Hart, Ph.D., will use functional neuroimaging to assess how neural activation in prefrontal cortical circuitry in the brain is modulated by stress, and whether individuals with schizophrenia and familial risk show differences in these interactions. Greater susceptibility to stress may explain some of the cognitive difficulties experienced by individuals with schizophrenia. Dr. Hart hypothesize that the group with schizophrenia will show the most severe disruption during stress, with reduction in prefrontal cortical circuit activity, and that those with familial high risk will show an intermediate level of susceptibility, but significantly greater stress-related disruption of prefrontal activity than the controls. The goal is to enhance understanding of how stress may contribute to the cognitive difficulties in schizophrenia, and whether changes in these mechanisms may reflect a risk marker for the disease.

Thomas L. Kash, Ph.D., will investigate the ability of dynorphin, a brain opiate, to alter information flow in a brain region critical for regulation of stress and anxiety. Affective disorders, including depression, anxiety and addiction, are believed to be due in part to disruptions of specific neurochemical systems in the brain. Current treatments target classical neurotransmitter (GABA and glutamate) and neuromodulator (dopamine and norepinpehrine) systems, but complications can include side effects and lack of effectiveness. Recent work has suggested that neuropeptide signaling systems may represent novel targets for treating affective disorders. Dynorphin is suggested to be involved in a variety of stress- induced alterations in function. Dr. Kash also plans to look at the impact of repeated stress on this specific neuropeptide system and possible stress-induced alterations in behavior.

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