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NIMH Funds Nine Innovative Projects to Pursue Major Challenges

Science Update

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has awarded nine exceptionally innovative research projects that hold promise for broad and deep impact on medical science. The grants, among the first made through a program called EUREKA (for Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration), enable investigators to test novel hypotheses or pursue major methodological or technical challenges.

The purpose of this initiative is to foster creative, pioneering, research projects that may have an unusually high impact on areas of science. The rationale for EUREKA is that for science to move forward in leaps rather than in incremental steps, investigators must have opportunities to test unconventional, potentially paradigm-shifting hypotheses, and to attempt to use original approaches to solve difficult technical and conceptual problems that severely impede progress in a field.

"These awards give us a real opportunity to push science forward and move rapidly towards the advances that will make a difference for millions suffering from mental disorders," says NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, MD.

The newly funded projects are:

  • Cloning and characterizing a starfish gene encoding a protein that will provide the first long-term marker of cellular activity in the nervous system and could serve as an indicator of healthy or diseased tissue. Expression of this protein in subgroups of neurons will allow researchers to watch brain activity as it happens, which holds the promise to revolutionize our understanding of neural network function. Paul Brehm, PhD, Oregon Health and Science University.
  • Understanding how changes in electrical activity in neurons can increase or decrease blood flow. This will strengthen our understanding of the basis of non-invasive imaging techniques such as functional MRI and potentially improve diagnostics to monitor blood flow in the brain. David Kleinfield, PhD, University of California, San Diego.
  • Developing new statistical methods to analyze genetic information relating to genetically complex disorders including schizophrenia. Todd Lencz, Feinstein Institute for Medical Research.
  • Defining the possible role of disruption of serotonin signaling in the genesis of autism and related developmental disorders. Rick Lin, PhD, University of Mississippi Medical Center.
  • Developing new chemical tools for understanding how neuronal connections are formed in the brain, which will lead to a better understanding of 1) how connections are made in the brain and 2) neurodevelopmental disorders in humans. Joshua Ahab Maurer, PhD, Washington University.
  • Developing genetically altered mice that can be used to manipulate the expression of genes in well-defined cell populations in the brain. Images of brain sections documenting targeted areas where gene expression has been altered will be available in a publicly accessible database. Development of these tools will provide a major resource to the research community and will have broad uses to understand the development and function of the brain. Andras Nagy, PhD, and Hongkui Zeng, PhD, Allen Institute for Brain Science.
  • Generating tools to rapidly activate neuropeptide signaling systems and using these to understand how neuropeptides regulate neurons and modulate communication between them in the brain. Bernardo Sabatini, Harvard Medical School.
  • Using a novel approach to identify the targets of micro RNAs to advance the understanding of how these newly discovered genetic elements regulate neuronal development and function. Yi Eve Sun, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles.
  • Using new methods of functional magnetic resonance imaging to uncover the fundamental principles of visual object recognition and perception that may aid in the creation of more effective treatments for disorders of perception, including autism. Michael Tarr, Brown University.

Other NIH institutes participating in EUREKA awards are the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke,