UNC Health Talk

UNC researchers earn five NIH BRAIN Initiative grants

Four researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were granted five awards totaling more than $7 million in the second round of the NIH BRAIN Initiative awards – Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies – the announcement of which coincided today with President Obama’s White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.

By accelerating the creation and use of such technologies, researchers will be able to produce a fuller picture of the brain to show how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact in both time and space. Armed with a deeper understanding of the last frontier in human biology, researchers plan to create innovative treatments, cures, and preventative measures for debilitating neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism, depression, schizophrenia, and a host of others. The immediate purpose of the NIH BRAIN Initiative is to fill major gaps in our current knowledge of the brain and provide unprecedented opportunities for exploring exactly how the brain records, processes, uses, stores, and retrieves vast quantities of information, all at the speed of thought.

Four researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were granted five awards totaling more than $7 million.

Researchers from 61 institutions received NIH BRAIN Initiative grants totaling $70 million today. Just five institutions received four or more grants. UNC was one of them. Three of the four UNC award recipients this year are from the UNC School of Medicine. The fourth is from the UNC College of Arts and Sciences. All are at the forefront of their chosen fields.

Flavio Frohlich, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry, cell biology and physiology, biomedical engineering, and neurology, earned a $2.4-million grant to further investigate how non-invasive brain stimulation alters and enhances the naturally occurring alpha oscillations – or alpha brain waves – which his lab has already linked to increased creativity and better memory. His immediate goal is to combine various lab models and human studies to understand the underlying mechanisms that allow transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS) to target alpha oscillations, which reflect internal processing and occur when our brains are not taking in stimuli through the senses, such as vision. His ultimate goal is to use tACS, to help people who suffer from depression, schizophrenia, and other neurological disorders in which cognitive impairment is involved, including autism. Frohlich is a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center in the UNC School of Medicine.

Yen-Yu Ian Shih, PhD, assistant professor of neurology, biomedical engineering, and neurobiology, earned two NIH BRAIN Initiative grants. The first is a $2.5-million award aimed at helping researchers understand the cellular and molecular underpinnings of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which is increasingly being used to study human brain function even though what is happening inside brain cells during fMRI remains poorly understood. Shih and his team will employ Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs (DREADDs) – developed by UNC’s Bryan Roth, MD, PhD, a 2014 BRAIN Initiative awardee – to selectively modulate proteins important for signaling within neurons and astrocytes. Shih will also use fMRI tools that can measure changes in blood flow throughout the brain. This study will shed light on how the fMRI signals that create images are formed; this will build a more solid foundation for fMRI data interpretation.

Shih’s second BRAIN Initiative grant is for $150,000 to build a novel electrode array that can be used during fMRI scans. The unique design of this flexible-electrode array will be used in high-resolution electrophysiology and deep brain stimulation, both of which – in combination with fMRI – comprise a new kind of platform that could vastly improve our understanding of brain function and how neural circuits are connected. This work is in partnership with Blackrock Microsystems. Shih is a member of the UNC Biomedical Research Imaging Center at the UNC School of Medicine.

Kathleen Gates, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, earned a $1.1-million award to develop, evaluate, and validate a new analytics-based method for analyzing brain data obtained from an MRI scanner. Her team’s efforts will culminate in a freely available statistical software package to help researchers better understand the underlying mechanisms of human behavior, emotions, and cognition. This, in turn, would help doctors tailor treatments for various conditions and help to provide personalized prevention efforts. The analytics technique can create robust statistical models for each individual, and it can cluster individuals based on similarities in brain function. The Gates lab has already used this method to study MRI data and successfully distinguish individuals with major depression disorder from those without. And her lab has revealed the variety of brain processes that underlie attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Dinggang Shen, PhD, professor of radiology, computer science, and biomedical engineering, and Pew-Thian Yap, PhD, assistant professor of radiology and biomedical engineering, were awarded a $1.14-million grant to develop “machine-learning” techniques that could one day help doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and develop more-informed prognoses for patients. To create these tools, Shen and Yap will use data derived from resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging of the human brain. These cutting-edge technologies will equip researchers with computational tools to accelerate the search for causes of and treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. Their research is expected to have broad impact on other neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, autism, and multiple sclerosis. Shen is the director of the Center for Image Analysis and Informatics, and the Image Display, Enhancement, and Analysis (IDEA) Lab, both housed at the UNC School of Medicine. Shen and Yap are both members of the UNC Biomedical Research Imaging Center at the UNC School of Medicine.

By accelerating such technologies, researchers will be able to produce a fuller picture of the brain to show how individual cells and complex neural circuits interact.

In 2014, three UNC researchers received a BRAIN Initiative grant for $2.85 million and were the first to report results from their research – a noninvasive “chemogenetic” technique that allows them to switch off a specific behavior in mice, such as voracious eating, and then switch it back on. The method works by targeting two different cell surface receptors of neurons that are responsible for triggering the specific chemical signals that control brain function and complex behaviors. Such receptors are common targets for drugs to treat various conditions – such as opioids to treat pain – but it remains unclear how to selectively target specific kinds of receptors to more effectively and precisely treat diseases. This chemogenetic tool is a crucial step in that direction, and it illustrates the goal and purpose of the NIH BRAIN Initiative grants.