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​University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute Receives Grant from Hillman Foundation to Advance Brain Research

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PITTSBURGH, Oct 7, 2016 - A lead gift of $600,000 from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation will help the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute (UPBI) launch groundbreaking interdisciplinary projects to advance research on normal brain function and its impairment in a range of disorders. With matching funds from internal sources, the UPBI is distributing a total of $925,000 to five projects managed by Pitt faculty that address paralysis, Parkinson's disease, adolescent substance use, obsessive compulsive disorder and brain computation. The funding also will support the growth of a UPBI Brain Bank to further research.

"Collectively, these projects have the potential to significantly advance our understanding of brain function and shed light on disorders that affect millions of people. New therapies are urgently needed, and the road to these cures begins with this kind of fundamental research," said Peter Strick, Ph.D., scientific director of the UPBI, who also is a distinguished professor and holds the Thomas Detre Endowed Chair in the Pitt School of Medicine Department of Neurobiology. "These projects will enable us to better frame the national research agenda and compete more effectively for large-scale federal funding opportunities."

"Several of these projects represent integrated, interdisciplinary efforts that bring together computational and engineering approaches to the study of important questions about brain function," said Nathan Urban, Ph.D., associate director of the UPBI, professor of neurobiology, and vice provost for special projects in Pitt's Office of the Provost. "As recognized in the federal BRAIN initiative, progress in brain science and in the understanding of disease increasingly requires scientists to work together across disciplinary and departmental boundaries to bring new technological and analytic approaches to bear on questions of neuronal function and dysfunction. This in-depth interdisciplinary approach would not be possible without the support of the Henry L. Hillman Foundation."

Selected through a competitive process, the projects include:

Enhanced Neural Prosthetics Using Shared-Mode Control: This project builds on the world's most advanced program in brain-controlled robotic arms and hands for paralyzed individuals. Led by Andrew Schwartz, Ph.D., distinguished professor of neurobiology at Pitt, a group of Pittsburgh scientists and engineers will enhance the performance of neural prosthetics, allowing a paralyzed person to manipulate an object. A prosthetic limb will operate under an individual's brain control, with a boost from an artificial intelligence component designed to predict what the individual intends to do. This shared-mode control will enable people who have quadriplegia to dexterously handle objects with a robotic arm and hand, and thus increase their independence in daily life.

Linking Circuit Dysfunction to Symptoms across Movement Disorders: Robert Turner, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology at Pitt, and colleagues focus on brain circuitry and the basal ganglia, a heavily interconnected set of deep brain nuclei involved in disorders of movement, such as Parkinson's disease. His project will lay the groundwork for establishing a predictive model of how pathology in this brain circuit results in symptoms seen in patients and animal models.

Impact of Sleep and Circadian Rhythms on the Vulnerability for Substance Use in Adolescents: Adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time when teenagers are more susceptible to developing drug addiction and sleep disorders, with an estimated 16 percent of young adults developing a substance abuse disorder. Teens are "wired" to be impulsive and reward seeking, according to Colleen McClung, Ph.D., Pitt associate professor of psychiatry. Her project will include preliminary studies in young teenagers to research the impact of sleep and circadian disruptions on behaviors that could lead to addiction.

Identifying the Circuits Underlying Abnormal Anxiety and Reward Processing: Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) affects 2 to 3 percent of people worldwide, and the underlying causes of this life-long disability are still unclear. Susanne Ahmari, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Pitt, and colleagues will combine analysis of brain activity in patients and animal models to better understand the nature of the abnormal brain activity that gives rise to OCD symptoms. The goal is to transform our understanding of OCD and drive the development of new and more effective treatments.

The Impact of Variability on Neuronal Processing: Neurons are an unpredictable lot, varying their response from moment to moment within any given experiment. They also generate large amounts of data. Coping with such large-scale data and characterizing variability across brain regions will be essential to constructing models of how the brain processes sensory signals, and ultimately for developing an overarching theory of cognition. Through their work, Brent Doiron, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics, and Matthew Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology, both of Pitt, will aim to understand the functional consequences of variability on specific brain computations and the behaviors that they generate.

Enriching a Brain Bank: The new funds also will support a UPBI Brain Bank that expands an existing, substantial resource of more than 1,000 brains, according to Julia Kofler, M.D., assistant professor of pathology at Pitt, and director of the Brain Bank, and Clayton A. Wiley, M.D., Ph.D., Pitt professor of pathology and director of the university's neuropathology fellowship program. Importantly, the bank has one of the largest brain collections related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Alzheimer's disease. What makes the bank special, according to Dr. Kofler, is that it extensively characterizes tissues and makes a large number of brain-region tissues available for study by research teams worldwide. Recently, the bank assisted Pitt investigators in confirming that a molecular marker of Parkinson's disease in mice also was present in human tissues. In another ongoing research effort, Chris Donnelly, Ph.D., Pitt assistant professor of neurobiology, and Dr. Kofler are exploring the similarities of a human stem cell model of ALS with post-mortem brain tissue of patients who had this disease. These are just two examples of how scientists are using the Brain Bank to accelerate and direct their research, according to Dr. Kofler.