Pew Scholars Receive BRAIN Initiative Grants

On September 30, four Pew scholars in the biomedical sciences were recognized as grant winners at part of the White House’s BRAIN Initiative. The four researchers were announced by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. These agencies are collaborating with universities and research institutes, foundations, and the private sector to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain.

Deemed “the next moonshot” by NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., the BRAIN Initiative, which stands for “Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies,” was devised to discover how the brain’s 80 billion neurons connect and interact to trigger thoughts, feelings, movements, and memories. Advances of this kind have the potential to improve therapies for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and traumatic brain injury.

Gregory Hannon, a 1997 Pew scholar and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, will receive $1.38 million from NIH to develop techniques using pulses of light to control genes in specific brain cells. The goal of his project is to selectively replace genetic material within brain cells, altering gene expression to affect the cells’ function.

John Ngai, a 1997 Pew scholar and the Coates Family Professor of Neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, will receive $4.3 million over three years from NIH to study memory and learning. He will use novel techniques to identify and isolate different types of brain cells and then sequence the genes within them to discover the full variety of cells involved in the learning process.

Another team of researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, including 2012 Pew scholar D. Florin Albeanu, is receiving $300,000 from NSF to study the role of neural circuits in complex behaviors such as responses to smells. This work could provide insights into how the brain processes all sensory information, including sensory processing disorders.

Finally, 2013 Pew scholar Viviana Gradinaru, working with a colleague at California Institute of Technology, will share a $2.12 million grant from NIH to develop a system for directing laser beams onto individual brain cells, activating light-sensitive molecules that will precisely guide neuron firing.

In his blog, Collins explained that “medical research today faces a wide gap between our current technologies for studying the brain and what will be needed to realize BRAIN’s ambitious goals.” Hannon, Albeanu, Ngai, and Gradinaru, with other grantees, will contribute to an unprecedented understanding of the most complex biological structure known to man.

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