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Director’s Blog: Big BRAINS Academy: NIMH Awards Program Fosters Creative New Scientists

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With the charge to become vanguards for the next generation of scientists, NIMH recognized the 12 recipients of the 2010 Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists—or BRAINS—at a ceremony on January 31st. This award program, first launched in 2010, is designed to support the research and career development of outstanding early-stage scientists. The program awards up to $1.625 million over five years for innovative research aimed at critical knowledge gaps identified by the NIMH Strategic Plan. The awards ceremony provides recipients with an opportunity to present their research, meet other award recipients, and network with key Institute staff.

In a stirring keynote presentation, Blair Simpson, M.D., Ph.D., of Columbia University, reminded the award recipients, “Small advantages early in your career lead to big advantages later. You have been given a great advantage, but with it comes the mandate, the responsibility to deliver.” Drawing from her own experiences, she provided a number of tips for surviving common research obstacles, such as dealing with negative data and pursuing translational research.

The 2010 BRAINS recipients and a brief description of their research topics are listed below:

  • Sonia Bishop, Ph.D.,University of California Berkeley, is studying the mechanisms by which trait anxiety—a person’s typical anxiety level on a given day—confers risk or resilience to anxiety disorders through differences in the functioning of specific brain regions involved in learned fear and fear suppression. Increased understanding of these processes may help predict who is at risk for anxiety disorders and may benefit from early, preventive intervention.
  • Pearl Chiu, Ph.D., Baylor College of Medicine, seeks to define commonalities in valuation, motivation, and other neurobehavioral processes between major depression and nicotine addiction, which may lead to improvements in diagnosis and treatment for the conditions as they occur separately and as comorbid illnesses.
  • Pietro Cottone, Ph.D., Boston University, is exploring the role of the endocannabinoid system—which, among other functions, is involved in food intake, stress responses—in compulsive overeating of highly palatable foods in a rat model. By establishing whether overeating follow a similar pattern of withdrawal and relapse as seen in drug addiction, such research may reveal brain changes that result from compulsive overeating as well as potential new targets for pharmacological treatment of eating disorders and obesity.
  • Alex Dranovsky, M.D., Ph.D., Columbia University, is applying recently developed techniques for stimulating the production of stem cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure implicated in schizophrenia, depression and memory disorders and one of only two brain structures able to produce new brain cells in adults, to determine how changes in social environment and experience may affect stem cell production. This research may reveal how to enhance stem cell and neuron production in other adult brain structures and could lead to cell-based therapies for mental illness.
  • Amit Etkin, M.D., Ph.D., Stanford University and Palo Alto Institute for Research & Education, aims to identify the brain circuits involved in responding to psychotherapy, specifically exposure therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, and to target these circuits using transcranial magnetic stimulation, a noninvasive method of brain stimulation. Identifying brain changes associated with successful psychotherapy treatment may guide the development of alternative, highly personalized, circuit-directed treatments for people who do not respond to psychotherapy.
  • Todd Gould, M.D., University of Maryland, is studying the mechanisms by which lithium is able to reduce the risk of attempted and completed suicides, through the use of mouse models of aggression and impulsivity, behaviors closely linked to suicide in humans. Further understanding of these mechanisms can inform the development of improved medications for reducing aggression and impulsivity, which in turn may help to reduce the risk of suicide.
  • Scott Langenecker, Ph.D., University of Michigan, is studying young adults who are in remission from a major depressive episode to better understand the neurobiological risk markers for relapse and disease progression, as well as features of disease stability. In addition to filling a research gap between people who currently have major depression and those at-risk for a first depression episode, this work may inform the development of more personalized treatments and help to identify individuals most in need of follow up.
  • Bo Li, Ph.D., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, seeks novel insights into the neurobiological changes that underlie depression by exploring the role of the lateral habenula—a brain structure thought to be involved in experiencing disappointment—in the development of depression and how the circuitry of the lateral habenula may be manipulated to mediate depressive behaviors, through the use of an animal model.
  • Christopher Pittenger, M.D., Ph.D., Yale University, aims to address challenges in developing animal models of disease by basing them on anatomical abnormalities found in human brains, rather than observable behaviors that resemble human disease symptoms, as is the current norm. Focusing first on developing a reliable mouse model for Tourette syndrome, if successful, such novel techniques may be applied to advance research on other mental illnesses as well.
  • Michael Silverstein, M.D., Boston University, is testing a systems based approach through Head Start—an early education program for children in low-income families—to reduce maternal depression, which affects disproportionate numbers of low-income and minority women and contributes to negative outcomes for their children. Head Start provides an established infrastructure for identifying mothers at risk for depression and for providing basic intervention on-site or through referrals as needed.
  • Nim Tottenham, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles, is studying the development of brain areas and circuits that have been implicated in emotion regulation and how an adverse early care-giving environment (orphanages) affects the development of these brain circuits. Such research may reveal early markers of risk as well as potential intervention targets to prevent mental illness in adulthood.
  • Zhaolan (Joe) Zhou, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, aims to develop novel, genetically modified mouse lines that will help to elucidate the epigenetic mechanisms by which environmental factors, such as early life stress, interact with certain genes to increase the risk of mental illness. This work will also help improve the understanding of the cellular and molecular basis of mental illnesses.

This is a challenging time for NIMH grantees. It is likely that fewer than 10 percent of proposals will be funded this year and the total number of new awards will probably be lower than at any time in the past decade. In this period of scarcity, we risk losing a generation of new investigators with fresh ideas and high ideals. The BRAINS awards offer a few early stage investigators a vital pathway through this unusually tough funding period.


2010 BRAINS awardees with NIMH staff

2010 BRAINS awards recipients with NIMH staff, from left: Thomas R. Insel, Director, NIMH; Sonia Bishop, Pearl Chiu, Pietro Cottone, Alex Dranovsky, Amit Etkin, Todd Gould, Scott Langenecker, Nim Tottenham, Bo Li; Kathy Anderson, Deputy Director, Division of Development Translational Research, NIMH; Christopher Pittenger, Michael Silverstein, Joe Zhou