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CNS program now giving residents lab experience

Sep. 4, 2014, 10:32 AM

Through the Vanderbilt Clinical Neuroscience Scholars Program, medical residents are doing bench work in the basic science labs.

In the same way scientists from the Vanderbilt Clinical Neuroscience Scholars (CNS) Program have benefited from their experiences in the clinical setting, an initiative is underway for Psychiatry, Neurology and Neurosurgery residents to have an opportunity to do bench work in the basic science labs.

The Clinical Neuroscience Scholars Program, instituted in 2011, is one of the few of its kind nationally, said Vanderbilt Brain Institute Director Mark Wallace, M.D., and reciprocating that opportunity should only strengthen the learning experience.

“The goal of the program is to be able to do the bi-directional exchange, to actually take clinical residents and pair them with mentors in basic science labs,” Wallace said. “We are working pretty hard now to get funding and really establish a framework in which we can do that because the ideal program in my mind is one that goes in both directions. We look forward to that starting to flesh out over this year.”

Four new scholars were named to the Program this month in a ceremony celebrating the successes of the first three years of CNS, which is supported by funding from the Marino Foundation and the Suzanne and Walter Scott Foundation.

“We have enormous depth in the neuroscience research community,” said CNS director BethAnn McLaughlin, Ph.D., assistant professor of Neurology. “Being able to spark translational dialogues in these young people is essential to positioning our trainees to be the most well-rounded and empowered professionals in the country.

“In addition to the invaluable clinical experience for our neuroscience students, the dozen students who are now in the program have been amazing community ambassadors for the neurosciences. They recognize that in order to be successful scientists, we cannot work in isolation, that the community needs to be aware of how devastating these diseases are and the resources that are available.”

McLaughlin started the program four years ago as a new opportunity for scientists, like herself, who could spend an entire academic career studying a single molecule or pathway related to autism, Parkinson’s disease or stroke without ever meeting a patient who is affected by the disease.

CNS allows students starting out in their training to gain a fuller appreciation of the clinical complexities of diagnosis and treatment of neurological dysfunction, she said.

David Charles, M.D., professor and vice-chair of Neurology and chief medical officer of the Clinical Neuroscience Institute, serves as both a part of the CNS executive board and as a mentor to Xiaohan Wang.

“These are some of the most bright and engaging students I’ve interacted with at Vanderbilt. They are eager to learn from both our patients and their families,” Charles said. “Their keen and inquisitive nature has been invaluable in identifying gaps where we need to do better in meeting clinical needs, allowing us to push the boundaries of research.”

Wang said the CNS program has given him “one of the most transformative experiences of graduate school.

“Seeing a patient with the kind of disease you are working on is rewarding beyond words and totally different than anything you could possibly experience in a traditional classroom,” Wang said.

Wallace has three students from his lab in the program studying topics from deep brain stimulation to autism.

“I find that my students come back to the lab with a perspective on experimental design that is fresh and entirely practical,” Wallace said. “They are seeking to build better models of disease and being very practical about how they design strategies to diagnose and treat disorders that can be implemented immediately.”

Juliane Krueger, one of Wallace’s students, spent time in the operating room with Peter Konrad, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Neurological Surgery and a leading expert in using deep brain stimulation (DBS) to help patients with early-stage Parkinson’s disease.

“Aside from the fact that listening to the neuron is sort of the Holy Grail for a neurophysiologist, what is amazing is that you can see how the knowledge we gained in the research settings is directly applied to optimize this surgery,” Krueger said.

“Dr. Konrad does basic research and employs that to make his clinical research better, and if you look at his publications and his success rate together with Dr. Charles, it has been improving tremendously. This has opened my eyes into what research questions to ask and to think about how precision in deep brain stimulation is really important. That is something you don’t get when you are just doing your bench work.”

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