Scientists Get $15 Million in NIH Grants for Brain, Pain, Learning Studies

Dr. James C. Bartlett

Dr. James C. Bartlett

Researchers in The University of Texas at Dallas’ School of Behavioral of Brain Sciences have received multiple $2 million-plus awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the second half of 2017, totaling more than $15 million.

Competition for research funding is becoming increasingly challenging, so the support of government agencies to the University’s research mission affirms the quality as well as the societal importance of the scientific contributions our faculty make, said Dr. James C. Bartlett, interim dean of the school and Ashbel Smith Professor.

“The recently funded projects described below all represent cutting-edge investigations that not only will contribute to scientific knowledge, but also have excellent prospects for helping to solve significant real-life problems the world is facing today,” Bartlett said. “I am proud of our government for supporting these efforts, and proud of our faculty for undertaking such exciting work.”

Center for Vital Longevity

Dr. Denise Park, director of research at the Center for Vital Longevity (CVL), received a five-year, $5.7 million grant from the NIH’s National Institute on Aging to extend the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study into a second decade. This project, which involves studying the same people over a prolonged period, will provide a window into how healthy brains transition into disease, and how early in the lifespan the markers of Alzheimer’s disease can be detected. The project also may yield information about what mechanisms underlie the maintenance of a healthy mind. 

The work is a collaboration between UT Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers.

“We must study the same people for a prolonged period to understand how healthy brains maintain their resilience and vitality as well as how initially healthy brains transition to pathology,” said Park, who holds the Distinguished University Chair in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “This third wave of data collection is perhaps the most exciting scientifically, as we will see clearly who has maintained cognitive function over a prolonged period, as well as those who are experiencing precipitous cognitive decline.”

Also at CVL, Dr. Kristen Kennedy, head of the Neuroimaging of Aging and Cognition Lab, was awarded more than $2.5 million from the National Institute on Aging to complete her work on the individual factors that influence brain structure, function and cognition over time.

The study tracks the influence of the neurotransmitter dopamine — a chemical found in the brain — on aging and neurocognitive decline, using imaging data of the same people over time to identify factors in the brain’s ability to adapt to meet increasing cognitive demands.

“Longitudinal studies are the only way to understand individual differences in aging trajectories,” Kennedy said. “We hope that this study will contribute to the deeper understanding of what sets a person on a healthy versus a pathological aging trajectory.”

Center for BrainHealth

At the Center for BrainHealth, Dr. Francesca Filbey, the Bert Moore Chair in BrainHealth and director of Cognitive Neuroscience of Addictive Behaviors, received a five-year, $2.5 million NIH grant for a brain-imaging study examining the mechanisms behind disorders related to cannabis use, such as compulsive drug-seeking despite negative consequences.

Her study will investigate individual and cultural effects on the severity of cannabis use disorder within two disparate societies: the United States and the Netherlands.

“Changes in legal climate warrant a better understanding of marijuana’s potential effects on the brain and risk factors that contribute toward a cannabis use disorder,” Filbey said. “By investigating the neural underpinnings of cannabis use disorder in people from opposing cannabis cultures, we aim to disentangle how environmental factors, such as legality, may lead to differences in how cannabis use disorder manifests in the brain.”

Callier Center for Communication Disorders

In December, Dr. Lisa Goffman, the Nelle C. Johnston Chair in Communications Disorders in Children, received $2.2 million from the NIH for her work on sequential pattern learning in children with developmental language disorder, a condition affecting 7 percent of 5-year-olds in the United States.

Goffman, who is affiliated with the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, explained that her team has determined from studying language and motor skill in tandem that children with language disorders have difficulties that extend beyond language. 

“These children struggle with sequence patterns — going beyond language to gestures and music, the issues are with organizing structures,” Goffman said. “We’re taking a novel approach at addressing this broader sequence patterning deficit by manipulating the input to children to facilitate that learning mechanism. We use both language and physiological measures to assess learning.”

Pain Neurology

Dr. Greg Dussor and Dr. Ted Price, co-directors of the Pain Neurology Research Group at UT Dallas and associate professors in the School of Behavioral of Brain Sciences, were awarded an NIH Research Project Grant of $2.4 million across five years to target a new receptor that may reduce the impact of migraines. One of the most common neurological diseases in the world, migraine primarily affects women at the height of their productive lives, and is a leading cause of disability with very few effective treatments.

“The goal of our study is to get a better understanding of migraine pathophysiology, into how migraine happens at the cellular level,” Price said. “We think we’ve found a very interesting new target mechanism for migraine treatment, and we’ve made significant advances on developing drugs that can target it. I’m very hopeful that a new drug candidate can come out of this that can move toward clinical development.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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