The Neuroscience Initiative: Studying the Brain in Health and Disease

Apr 16, 2018 10:00 AM

Author: Stacy W. Kish

The Neuroscience Initiative was launched by the University of Utah Health to take steps towards alleviating the devastating effects of brain disorders.

“By deepening the medical community’s understanding of the brain, our physicians and researchers can pioneer new treatments, approaches, and techniques to improve health care,” said Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, PhD, Director of Neuroscience Initiative.

To accomplish this goal, the Initiative aims to build an integrated academic environment to develop and support collaboration across disciplines and between clinicians and researchers. It follows this approach through five disease pillars — demyelinating and neuro-immune diseases, mood and behavior disorders, neural injury and recovery, neurodegenerative disorders, and episodic brain dysfunction. At U of U Health, the neuroscience community ranges from neurologists to imaging specialists to molecular biologists, bridging more than 100 faculty in 6 colleges and schools, 15 centers and institutes, and more than 20 departments.

Through the Initiative, Paula Williams, PhD, associate professor in Clinical Psychology at University of Utah, met Jeff Anderson, MD, PhD, assistant professor in Radiology at University of Utah Health. Each researcher was tackling sleep-related questions from different perspectives.

“The idea that sleep is not the same for everybody has not been a prominent part of research,” Williams said. “It is hard to make the case for funding of new, large-scale studies when there is not sufficient evidence or large literature to back it up.”

To help researchers build a foundation for new projects, the Initiative instituted a seed grant program. With this preliminary funding, researchers can launch new, innovative projects to tackle neuroscience-based discovery. Williams and Anderson received a pilot seed grant to study short sleepers, folks who report regularly getting less than six hours of sleep every night yet do not report any negative effects.

“Because of this funding mechanism I am collaborating with researchers I probably would not have met previously,” said Williams. “This is smart because national funding agencies are looking for team science that moves research forward in innovative ways.”

Their collaboration has produced brain images of short sleepers in a resting state, resulting in a publication in the journal Brain and Behavior in 2016.Using a seed grant renewal funding, the team plan to begin recruiting for the next phase of the short sleeper study.

Jeff Anderson, MD, PhD
Jeff Anderson, MD, PhD

“From early data, it seems some short sleepers don’t need as much sleep, because they can complete some of the ‘tasks’ of sleep when they are awake,” Anderson said. “We want to bring people into the lab and actually measure how much they are sleeping, which could speak to why we sleep in the first place.”

The Neuroscience Initiative seed grant program has resulted in a Return on Investment of about $20 million and continues to support neuroscience-based discovery and innovation projects. Additionally, the research initiative has been instrumental in facilitating submission of almost $100 million worth of research grants and was successful in recruiting some of the best and brightest neuroscientists in the field of aging, memory, traumatic brain injury, and addiction research.

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, PhD
Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, PhD

“The synergy between the Neuroscience Initiative and national efforts ensures that outcomes from these collaborations will positively influence not only Utahns but patients worldwide,” Yurgelun-Todd said.