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Conn lands Javits Neuroscience Investigator award

Aug. 7, 2014, 10:18 AM

Vanderbilt University’s P. Jeffrey Conn, Ph.D., has won a Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for discoveries that could lead to new treatments for anxiety, schizophrenia and other brain disorders.

P. Jeffrey Conn, Ph.D.

The award, named for the late Sen. Jacob Javits (R-New York), provides up to seven years of research funding to scientists “with a history of exceptional talent, imagination and preeminent scientific achievement.”

Conn is the Lee E. Limbird Professor of Pharmacology and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery (VCNDD). He said the funding will enable him and his colleagues to pursue provocative recent discoveries involving a specific family of brain receptors that bind glutamate.

The neurotransmitter glutamate is ubiquitous, affecting virtually every circuit involved in any brain function.

Conn has long been interested in metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs), because they are located on both sides of the synapse, or gap between nerve cells. They thus may serve as a kind of “dimmer switch,” capable of dampening or enhancing glutamate transmission in specific brain circuits.

Indeed, in the early 1990s, “we discovered the first small molecule that selectively activates this family of receptors,” he said. Since then, several mGluR “allosteric modulators,” compounds that modulate receptor activity, have been discovered and are in different stages of drug development.

Recently Conn, working with Colleen Niswender, Ph.D., and others in the VCNDD, discovered that subunits from two subtypes of this receptor, mGluR4 and mGluR2, can join together to form an mGluR2/4 “heterodimer” with distinct — and potentially modifiable — effects on specific brain circuits.

The Javits award will enable the researchers to explore “the exciting possibility that selectively targeting (these) receptors could provide a novel approach for treatment of schizophrenia and anxiety disorders,” Conn said.

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