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Four researchers receive Young Investigator Grants

Nov. 15, 2018, 11:08 AM

by Bill Snyder

Four Vanderbilt University researchers are among 200 recipients of this year’s Young Investigator Grants awarded by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation to support “innovative ideas for groundbreaking neurobiological research.”

The New York-based Foundation, formerly known as the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), is a leading non-governmental supporter of mental health research.

The two-year Young Investigator Grants provide up to $35,000 per year to advanced postdoctoral fellows, instructors and assistant professors who are seeking to identify causes, improve treatments and develop prevention strategies for psychiatric disorders.

The grants “enable outstanding scientists to pursue bold new ideas that expand our understanding of psychiatric illness and help identify potentially game-changing targets for treatment,” Herbert Pardes, MD, president of the Foundation’s Scientific Council, said in a news release.

“We are thrilled that these talented young investigators will be able to test their most exciting new ideas with the funding provided by the Foundation,” said Lawrence Marnett, PhD, dean of Basic Sciences for Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “This type of flexible support is critical for creating new knowledge that advances a field.”

The 2018 recipients and their research topics are listed below.

Erin Calipari, PhD, assistant professor of Pharmacology, is studying how social stress contributes to depression at the genetic level. She is analyzing levels of transcription, the process by which DNA is “transcribed” into RNA copies, and combining that information with brain imaging data in mice.

The goal is to learn how transcription influences the activity in brain cell populations that are known to guide complex social behaviors.

Samuel Centanni, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, is studying brain signaling involving endogenous cannabinoids (eCB), the body’s version of the active chemical in marijuana that may be a new treatment target for depression and anxiety disorders.

Stimulation of the eCB system releases the neurotransmitter glutamate, which regulates the behavioral response to stress. Using a recently developed glutamate sensor, Centanni and colleagues will measure glutamate release in a particular brain region in mice to reveal the effects of enhancing eCB signaling on glutamate activity under varying stressful conditions.

Daniel Foster, PhD, research assistant professor of Pharmacology in the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery, is studying repetitive behaviors that are often a debilitating symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome and autism spectrum disorder.

Repetitive behaviors are associated with excessive release of the neurotransmitters glutamate and dopamine in a brain region called the striatum. Using a mouse model, Foster will test the effect of compounds that can reduce glutamate and dopamine levels by “modulating” the activity of a muscarinic acetylcholine receptor.

Autumn Kujawa, PhD, assistant professor of Psychology and Human Development in Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, is pursuing research testing the possibility that adolescents at risk for depression show a blunted neural response to social rewards and an elevated response to social threats.

She will use electrophysiological measures of brain activity to study whether unusual processing of rewards and threats can produce changes in social behavior and the development of depressive symptoms in adolescents exposed to social stress. The goal is to improve ways to predict and treat depression.

Since 1987 the foundation has awarded more than $394 million to support the work of more than 4,700 scientists worldwide, including more than 60 from Vanderbilt.

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