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Director’s Update: NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards and New Innovator Awards: Funded Work Includes Research that May Increase Knowledge about Mental Health and Brain Disease

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On September 17, 2007, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni announced the 2007 recipients of the Pioneer Awards and New Innovator Awards. The awards are key components of the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research. The programs support exceptionally creative scientists who take highly innovative approaches to major challenges in biomedical research.

The Pioneer Award, inaugurated in 2004, aims to stimulate high-risk, high-impact medical research, by providing up to $500,000 per year for five years to a highly select group of individuals who have the potential to make extraordinary contributions to medical research. The NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, a program announced in March 2007, intends to stimulate highly innovative research and support promising new investigators. The award, which offers up to $1.5 million in direct costs over five years, is open to new investigators who have not received an NIH regular research (R01) or similar grant.

Selected award recipients whose work may add to the body of mental health knowledge include the following:

NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D., Boston College professor of psychology, who will study how the brain creates emotional experiences like anger, fear, and happiness. Her work challenges the prevailing wisdom that emotions are hard-wired into the brain, theorizing that they are instead generated from more basic affective and conceptual components.

Peter Bearman, Ph.D., Columbia University professor of social science, who will study the role of social and environmental factors in autism.

Emery N. Brown, M.D., Ph.D., Massachusetts General Hospital professor of anesthesia and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of computational neuroscience and health sciences and technology, who will develop a systems neuroscience approach to study how anesthetic drugs act in the brain to create the state of general anesthesia.

Thomas R. Clandinin, Ph.D., Stanford University assistant professor of neurobiology, who aims to define the links between behavioral decisions and specific neurons, with the goal of achieving an integrated understanding of neural function that will fundamentally change our concept of how the brain computes information.

Takao K. Hensch, Ph.D., Children’s Hospital Boston professor of neurology, who will explore the role of noncoding RNAs in brain development and as a potential treatment for brain disorders.

Frances E. Jensen, M.D., Children’s Hospital Boston professor of neurology, who will examine how seizures in early life alter the developing brain and lead to cognitive disorders such as learning deficits, neuropsychiatric symptoms, and autism.

Mark J. Schnitzer, Ph.D., Stanford University assistant professor of biological sciences and applied physics, who will create technology for massively parallel brain imaging to allow large-scale, systematic studies of normal and diseased neural circuits.

Gina Turrigiano, Ph.D., Brandeis University professor of biology, who will develop a very high-resolution microscope for probing the molecular structure of synapses. This relates to her work on how experience rewires neural circuits within the brain’s cortex, with a particular focus on synaptic changes that stabilize circuit activity.

NIH Director’s New Innovator Awards

Kjersti Aagaard-Tillery, M.D., Ph.D., Baylor College of Medicine assistant professor of maternal-fetal medicine, who will study how maternal obesity programs genetic modifications and adaptions in the developing fetus that predispose it to adult diseases.

Ed Boyden, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology assistant professor of biological engineering, who will invent and study new methods for controlling the neural circuits that malfunction in neurological and psychiatric disorders, with the ultimate goal of translating this technology into clinical applications.

Frances A. Champagne, Ph.D., Columbia University assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior, who will investigate the transmission of reproductive behavior across generations through genetic modifications that do not involve DNA sequence changes. The study uses a rodent model to explore natural variations in mother-infant interaction that affect offspring development and behavior.

Sean Davies, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University research assistant professor of pharmacology, who will develop genetically engineered bacteria that could be used as dietary supplements for the long-lasting drug treatment of chronic diseases.

Pedro Fernandez-Funez, Ph.D., University of Texas Medical Branch assistant professor of neurology, who will use fruit flies and mice to study the biology of prion proteins, which cause neurodegenerative disorders such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) and mad cow diseases.  An initial symptom of CJD is rapidly progressive dementia, leading to memory loss, personality changes, and hallucinations.

Kristen C. Jacobson, Ph.D., University of Chicago assistant professor of psychiatry, who will conduct a large, multiphase, multidisciplinary study of Chicago-area adolescents to determine the effects of social, biological, and environmental factors on individual differences in problem behaviors.

Joanna L. Jankowsky, Ph.D., California Institute of Technology senior research fellow in biology, who will develop a mouse model to study the function of unique brain cells that are regenerated throughout life and explore how their loss may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.

Alan Jasanoff, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology N.C. Rasmussen Assistant Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, who will devise new genetically controlled, noninvasive methods for measuring whole-brain activity in animals. Using the technique, the research team hopes to change the way scientists study the brain.

James Shorter, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics, who will develop biochemical methods to combat diseases caused by nerve degeneration, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s.

Eva M. Szigethy, M.D., Ph.D., Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, who will use inflammatory bowel disease as a model for investigating the interactions between the brain, gut, and immune system in how adolescents cope with chronic illness. The study also evaluates the efficacy of a modified cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) on emotional well-being, physical health, economic costs, and neurobiological outcomes.

Mehmet Fatih Yanik, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who will develop microchip technologies to perform extremely fast studies of gene function in small animals to rapidly identify genetic targets for new drugs. The study also uses the proposed techniques to explore mechanisms of neural degeneration and regeneration following reproducible injuries.