Connecting to the brain’s connections
Date: February 7, 2011
The Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute (BSI) just discovered a new way to boost the connections between brain cells—or at least our understanding of them. The institute recently announced that it is funding grants that total $5 million over two years to Johns Hopkins researchers who study these connections, known as synapses.
“In the last five years, it’s become increasingly clear that a lot of cognitive disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease are deep down a dysfunction of the synapses,” says Rick Huganir, director of the Department of Neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University and co-director of the BSI.
To bring together people who are studying the basic function of these connections with people who are doing research on the diseases that synapses affect, Huganir and other BSI leaders put out a call in June for grant proposals from researchers at each of the university’s schools. They encouraged applicants to collaborate on the proposals, creating new combinations of scientists who could move their fields forward in novel ways.
The end result was 12 new funded grants in a wide variety of areas. Some of the new research will focus on the basic nature of how synapses form in the brain. Others will be more disease-specific—for example, one of the grants was awarded to neuroscientist Paul Worley, molecular biologist and geneticist Rachel Green, and neuropathologist Alena Savonenko to study pathways in the brain associated with cognitive disorders, including autism.
Huganir notes that the BSI didn’t want to just hand out grant money and walk away. The BSI plans to organize monthly or bimonthly meetings of the grantees to present their work and hear speakers from outside Johns Hopkins who are studying similar topics. The institute is also hiring two or three new faculty members whose work centers on synapses and their roles in healthy and diseased brains. Huganir will be overseeing this new initiative, dubbed the Synapses, Circuits and Cognitive Disorders program.
“We really want to make this a coherent group,” he says. “that will make synergistic progress and learn from each other.”