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Cohen Fund bolsters Siciliano’s memory research

Sep. 24, 2020, 9:19 AM


by Bill Snyder

Cody Siciliano, PhD, assistant professor of Pharmacology in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, has been selected to receive a one-year, $100,000 research award from the Stanley Cohen Innovation Fund to support his studies of the neural substrates of memory.

Cody Siciliano, PhD, is studying the neural substrates of memory.
Cody Siciliano, PhD, is studying the neural substrates of memory. (photo by John Russell)

The Cohen Fund honors the late Stanley Cohen, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry, Emeritus and 1986 Nobel laureate, by supporting the type of innovative, high-risk research for which he was known.

“Cody is an exceptional young scientist who we were fortunate to recruit to Vanderbilt,” said Lawrence Marnett, PhD, Dean of Basic Sciences in the School of Medicine. “He will be integrating frontier technologies of imaging and neuroscience to identify precise circuits in the brain that underlie decision-making, motivation and behavioral flexibility.”

“Dr. Siciliano’s work on neural circuits will advance innovative concepts and tools to establish causal relationships between specific circuits and memory formation, tackling one of the larger problems in fundamental brain science,” added Jennifer Pietenpol, PhD, Executive Vice President for Research at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Siciliano earned his PhD in neuroscience from Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining the Vanderbilt faculty last year.

His work focuses on understanding how neural circuits in the brain orchestrate decision-making and memory, how these processes can become dysregulated due to trauma or disease, and how normal regulation of these circuits could be restored through various interventions.

Siciliano’s approach combines electrochemical neurotransmitter detection and optical circuit dissection techniques with complex behavioral tasks to define the neural dynamics that underlie decision-making in animal models of disease.

“These experiments have the potential to greatly expand our understanding of how the brain stores memories, and the neurobiology underlying PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said Ege Kavalali, PhD, professor and acting chair of Pharmacology, in his recommendation letter supporting Siciliano’s proposal.

Siciliano is a highly productive scientist, Kavalali added, who has published more than 20 first- or last-author papers in major journals since 2014 and who has received research funding from the National Institutes of Health and the global biopharmaceutical company Alkermes.

Earlier this year he received the Daniel X. Freedman Prize for contributions to neuropsychiatric disease research from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.

Siciliano’s neural circuitry project “is precisely the kind of high-risk, high-reward research that the Cohen Fund was established to stimulate,” Marnett said. “It celebrates the memory of our beloved colleague Stanley Cohen, who passed away earlier this year.”

Marnett is University Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry and the Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Cancer Research. Pietenpol is the B.F. Byrd Jr. Professor Oncology and director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Previous recipients of grants from the Stanley Cohen Innovation Fund and their projects include:

  • Anne Kenworthy, PhD, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, and Charles Sanders, PhD, professor of Biochemistry and the Aileen M. Lange & Annie Mary Lyle Professor of Cardiovascular Research, exploring the potential for pharmacological targeting of proteins in different membrane domains;
  • David Calkins, PhD, the Denis M. O’Day, MBBS, Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, studying how the energy of brain astroglia cells may be harnessed to prevent neuronal aging; and
  • Scott Smith, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine, testing a new therapeutic strategy for peanut allergies.

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