|Shown at the inaugural BRAINS ceremony are (from l) NIMH deputy director Dr. Philip Wang; Dr. Kathleen Anderson, deputy director of NIMH’s Division of Developmental Translational Research; Dr. Nicholas Sokol of Indiana University; Dr. Sean Deoni of Brown University; Dr. Stephen Gilman of Harvard University; Dr. Consuelo Walss-Bass of the University of Texas, San Antonio; Dr. Daniel Dickstein of Brown University; Dr. Daniela Kaufer of the University of California, Berkeley; Dr. Linda Wilbrecht of the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, UCSF; and NIMH director Dr. Thomas Insel.
The first seven recipients of NIMH’s new BRAINS—Biobehavioral Research Awards for Innovative New Scientists—gathered recently for a presentation ceremony and an opportunity to describe the work these grants will support. The awards are designed to fund early career scientists carrying out innovative, exploratory research aimed at critical knowledge gaps identified by NIMH.
Inspired by the success of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards and New Innovator Awards, BRAINS provides up to $1.625 million over 5 years. The focus of this year’s awardees is neurodevelopment.
“While these awards fund specific projects, they are truly an investment in specific people,” said NIMH director Dr. Thomas Insel.
The hope is that these awards will give early-stage investigators enough flexibility to take risks on tough problems that are central to neuroscience and mental illness, he noted, but not yet well understood, such as the nature and development of neural circuits and the genetic factors and environmental influences that both shape and disrupt them.
The seven recipients gave brief overviews of each project:
- Sean Deoni of Brown University School of Engineering is using cutting-edge imaging techniques to track white matter development—a basic element of brain connectivity—and changes in structure and function in children up to age 5.
- Daniel Dickstein of Brown University School of Medicine is using behavioral testing, brain scans and genetic data to identify biomarkers that could help predict the development of bipolar disorder.
- Stephen Gilman of Harvard University is looking at social and economic influences early in life (including prenatal effects) in the development of depression.
- Daniela Kaufer of the University of California, Berkeley, is using rats to study how stress in early life can alter neurodevelopment, including the generation of new neurons and neural connections.
- Nicholas Sokol of Indiana University is using a fruit fly model to study the molecular foundations of neuroplasticity and how development of the brain is altered by internal influences, such as hormones, and external events.
- Consuelo Walss-Bass of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is looking at the role of the immune system in brain development and behavior in adolescence.
- Linda Wilbrecht of the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at the University of California, San Francisco, is studying how experience interacts with development to sculpt brain circuits and shape behavior in the age range analogous to adolescence in mice.
Keynote speaker Dr. Ronald Dahl of the University of Pittsburgh, chair of the BRAINS study section, drew from his own research on adolescence to illustrate that there are key windows in development that represent periods of vulnerability for mental health; a better understanding of the changes in the brain that underlie the functional and behavioral transitions in these periods can serve as a guide for future interventions.
BRAINS will continue as an annual program for NIMH. The institute received 45 applications for the 2010 competition, which focused on gap areas specified in the NIMH strategic plan.
“We keep hearing from early career investigators that the future looks bleak,” said Insel. “BRAINS is intended as a pledge to our most promising young scientists that we will support them to follow their most innovative ideas.”