In a new study, biologists report that melanocyte skin cells detect ultraviolet light using a photosensitive receptor previously thought to exist only in the eye. This eye-like ability of skin to sense light triggers the production of melanin within hours, more quickly than previously thought, in an apparent rush to protect against damage to DNA.
John Donoghue was recently awarded $950,949 to develop assistive technology that will allow persons with severe paralysis to be able to reach and grasp objects using their own brain signals. The technology will help people with spinal cord injury, stroke, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, to control a robotic arm and hand that can safely interact with people and markedly enhance the quality of their lives. This challenge grant was funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown University neuroscience professor Gilad Barnea will receive a nearly $1.3 million, four-year federal grant toward development of a method to selectively monitor the activation of each of the five receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.
If he succeeds, the achievement could lead to more targeted treatments for several mental illnesses and a number of other diseases.
“It can make a big impact on the development of new drugs for multiple disorders,” said Barnea, assistant professor of neuroscience.
The award, known as a EUREKA grant, is funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Mental Health. EUREKA grants — for Exceptional, Unconventional Research Enabling Knowledge Acceleration — are part of a new NIH initiative, less than two years old, that funds innovative, high-risk/high reward research.
Barnea will use the funding to develop a method for selectively monitoring the activation of each of the five dopamine receptors in the brain, without interference from the others. Such an advance matters because often several different receptors, beyond the one that physicians and scientists wish to target, respond to the same drug. This imperfect process leads to side effects from drugs that could be more beneficial if they worked in a more precise way. The membranes of all the cells in the body contain many receptors that receive signals from outside the cell and translate them into various responses inside the cell. These responses can include alteration of gene expression.
The ability to monitor the activation of a single dopamine receptor would be crucial for developing more precise and effective treatments for several mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity, as well as for other disorders such as addiction, Parkinson’s disease and hypertension.
The long-term implications of Barnea’s success are even larger. Dopamine receptors belong to the family of G Protein Coupled Receptors (GPCRs — the largest family of receptors in the body) that respond to a variety of stimuli including various hormones and neurotransmitters. Due to their pivotal role controlling a variety of physiological signals, GPCRs are common targets for pharmaceutical therapies, including treatments for psychiatric conditions, hypertension, asthma, allergies, peptidic ulcers and certain cancers. Barnea believes that the method, once developed and proven successful, could be applied to other types of GPCRs. If so, the concept could have a broad impact both on the understanding of the physiology of these receptors, and on the development and testing of specific drugs for a wide range of illnesses, all with fewer side effects.
For the study, Barnea and his lab plan to develop several strains of mice in which the specific types of dopamine receptors will be monitored.
Barnea said he developed the idea that led to the EUREKA award from his main focus on understanding how the brain analyzes the information it receives from the nose to perceive scents.
To do this, Barnea has been developing a new system for labeling neural circuits across synapses in the brain. Some elements of this system, he said, could be reconfigured and modified to address the newer question about dopamine receptors and other GPCRs.
By Mark Hollmer
C. elegans sounds a bit like “elegant,” but it is actually the scientific name for a specific type of nematode, a tiny worm just one millimeter long.
While the average person may not view worms as elegant, Anne Hart sees C. elegans as marvelous creatures that are an ideal tool to help solve some important medical mysteries.
“They have a very short lifecycle, going from egg to adult worm in three days,” Hart said. “They are very inexpensive, and they are one of the most powerful genetic models available for studying the nervous system.”
Hart is coming to Brown this fall as an associate professor of neuroscience after many years as a scientist with the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Cancer Research and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
She brings with her something new to the Brown community. She will be the first person here with a lab devoted to C. elegans. These animals are barely visible to the naked eye, have only 302 neurons and live in soil around the world.
Hart uses C. elegans to study nervous system function and neurodegeneration. She wants to figure out the basic principles of how neurons work and why neurons die in neurodegenerative diseases. In a broader context, Hart sees C. elegans as an ideal animal in which to study this vast subject, because they are organisms with a relatively simple construction.
“It’s figuring out a lawnmower first before a nuclear submarine,” Hart said. “The C. elegans nervous system is small and simple. Humans are complicated.”
Hart, 48, said she is excited to bring her research to Brown and to join “an excellent group of neurobiologists” already here. She said that collaboration in neuroscience is key to making advances in the field.
“There are great people (at Brown) doing neuroscience in all sorts of other neuro-organisms,” she said. “I have found over the years that you can make the most progress when studying a tough problem like neurodegeneration, if you are working with scientists who have other approaches and are using other models.”
C. elegans will not necessarily take up much space. At any one time, Hart said, there are tens of thousands of the worms alive in the lab, with tens of thousands more in the freezer. The frozen ones come back to life when they’re thawed. The active ones live on agar-filled Petri dishes and eat bacteria.
Hart has pursued research at Massachusetts General Hospital for 15 years — initially as a postdoctoral fellow — and has run her own lab there since 1996. At MGH she most recently has had the title of associate geneticist in medicine and served as associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School. Hart earned her Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State University in 1983, worked for a few years, and then earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience after seven years at the University of California–Los Angeles.
Hart, who is married and has a teenage daughter, does a lot outside of the lab. She plays “very amateur” ice hockey with her husband and loves to cook. The family also sails on a small boat named the Anodyne.
The boat’s name, of course, has a scientific and neuronal connection. Anodyne is a Greek term for a soothing treatment that decreases or eliminates pain.
The November 18 lecture for Bench to Bedside has been rescheduled for January 27, 2010, Sidney Frank Hall, at 4PM. Drs. Sheila Blumstein and Steven Mernoff will discuss “Stroke”.
In place of this, all are invited to attend a lecture jointly sponsored by CCMB/MPPB/Psychiatry, at 3PM, 70 Ship Street, Room 107. Dr. Jason Moore, of Dartmouth Medical School, will discuss “Bioinformatics Challenges for Genome-Wide Association Studies.”