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UTD Researcher Awarded $446,000 Grant to Study
Dr. Michael Kilgard Seeks to Develop New Neuro-Rehabilitation Techniques
RICHARDSON, Texas (Oct. 7, 2002) - A researcher at The University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) has been awarded a $446,000 grant to pursue studies into precise manipulation of brain plasticity - essentially "rewiring" neural circuits - to overcome brain damage from disorders ranging from stroke to autism.
Dr. Michael P. Kilgard, an assistant professor in UTD's School of Human Development and principal investigator of the university's Cortical Plasticity Laboratory, received the "Bridging Brain, Mind and Behavior" award from the James S. McDonnell Foundation of St. Louis to fund a research project entitled "Brain Plasticity and Neuro-Rehabilitation." The accompanying grant covers a five-year period.
"Despite advances in neurosurgery, there is at present no way to directly rewire the brain," said Kilgard. "While physicians can treat many of the symptoms of brain damage, there is little they can do to stimulate recovery."
"The aim of this project is to address basic neuroscience questions about the cellular mechanisms of cortical plasticity, or brain rewiring, while developing a new approach for treating neurological disease with directed cortical plasticity," he said.
Brain damage can result in pain, paralysis, blindness and loss of language skills, depending on the regions of the brain that are affected. Non-directed plasticity helps restore some function by rewiring damaged circuits but is often insufficient for full recovery, even after months of rehabilitation.
Kilgard's research will examine the potential of a dual approach to rehabilitating damaged brains, employing both sensory and pharmacological therapy. Sensory stimulation provides a means to manipulate neural activity, while drugs may be administered to stimulate the release of neurotransmitters that encourage plasticity and learning.
"These experiments will provide the theoretical basis for future clinical trials to determine the effectiveness of targeted neuro-rehabilitation in humans," said Kilgard. "It may one day be possible to rebuild damaged circuits and restore lost function by guiding plasticity in much the same way that doctors now routinely manipulate the immune system."
"Although far from proven, neuro-rehabilitation has the potential to transform the treatment of brain disorders in the same way that antibiotics and chemotherapy have changed the treatment of infection and cancer," he said.
Kilgard recently demonstrated that it is possible to precisely manipulate plasticity in animals by controlling neurotransmitter release and sensory experience. Using electrical stimulation of one of the brain's learning centers, he was able to alter both the brain's wiring and processing speed.
According to Kilgard, preliminary evidence suggests that combining speech and physical therapy with pharmacological stimulation can significantly improve recovery from stroke. He indicated that the potential to manipulate plasticity in humans might also be beneficial for patients suffering from other neurological and psychiatric disorders by reversing the "bad wiring" that causes the condition.
The foundation supporting Kilgard's research was established in 1950 by aerospace pioneer James S. McDonnell to "improve the quality of life" and does so by contributing to the generation of new knowledge by supporting research and scholarship. Through its "Bridging Brain, Mind and Behavior" program, the foundation funds mind-brain research, including cognitive neuroscience, cognition and learning and applications of cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology to rehabilitation of individuals after injury to the central nervous system.
Kilgard joined the UTD faculty in 1999. He earned a Ph.D. degree in Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, and a B.A. degree in Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
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