ARRA Funds Accelerate Discovery Using Integrated Approaches for Brain Disorders
When it comes to accelerating discovery to understand and treat tough medical problems like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and brain aging, NIH Common Fund ARRA grantee Dr. Thomas Grabowski is right on it. Dr. Grabowski says that “...all good science is interdisciplinary” and you can be sure he means it. As director of the Integrated Brain Imaging Center (IBIC) at the University of Washington (UW), Grabowski, a neurologist and cognitive neuroscientist, is using ARRA funds provided through the Common Fund to help integrate state-of-the-art brain imaging with cognitive neuroscience, medicine, engineering and other disciplines existing within Centers and research teams at UW. The goal is to create truly multidisciplinary teams of neuroscientists and physicians that have the imaging expertise needed to investigate and understand mechanisms, vulnerabilities, and other novel aspects of neurological diseases, and ultimately to use that knowledge to develop effective neurological rehabilitation technologies. These efforts, Grabowski points out, are being made possible by ARRA support: “The ARRA funds we are receiving will enable us to form new coalitions between neuroscience-related centers at the University of Washington that would like to incorporate cutting edge [brain] imaging into what they are doing scientifically but have lacked the imaging partner to do that until now.”
ARRA funding is supporting two clusters of projects. The first cluster focuses on applying “systems neuroimaging” in novel ways to investigate aspects of Alzheimer disease, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy. As its name implies, systems neuroimaging allows researchers to image the brain along the natural dimensions of its systems. Having this capability is critical as it provides scientists with a powerful tool to investigate neurologic diseases from the perspective of associated brain systems. For example, one brain network, the default mode network, closely maps to brain regions that are vulnerable in Alzheimer disease and are increasingly being recognized as important areas to study the pathogenesis of Alzheimer disease.
Similarly, UW researchers are also using systems neuroimaging to investigate the basis for cognitive impairment in Parkinson’s disease which, unlike the well-recognized motor deficits, is not reduced by levodopa and other drugs commonly used to treat Parkinson’s.
In another project, UW researchers are exploring whether neuroimaging is helpful in predicting how language and verbal memory may be affected in patients who undergo surgery to treat epilepsy. Using imaging to identify important functional areas in the regions to be operated on may reduce the risks of these deficits.
The second cluster of ARRA-supported projects includes efforts to improve the interface between the brain and computers. Sensorimotor neural engineering is a major effort at UW directed toward building prostheses that a patient can control directly from their brain. This type of technology could be employed to aid patients with paralysis for example.
In addition to facilitating cutting edge research, Dr. Grabowski is quick to point out that the ARRA funding has allowed them to move forward in the process of filling a new junior faculty position and a new research scientist position. In addition, ARRA funding is supporting two graduate students, and has stabilized three core personnel positions.