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NIGMS Provides Key Scientific Funding Resource for UW’s Neuroscience Center

June 11, 2015
woman sitting beside microscope and computer screen
Karagh Murphy, a UW neuroscience doctoral student from Perkasie, Pa., poses next to a confocal microscope. Murphy developed a tool to decrease testosterone in songbirds. NIGMS funding has played a major role in advancing the university’s neuroscience program since 2000. (Bill Flynn Photo)

Dori Pitynski garnered widespread media attention for a recent study she conducted that determined consuming too much or too little salt is a key factor in stunting the start of puberty in humans.

The University of Wyoming neuroscience doctoral student presented her research at the recent European Congress of Endocrinology in Dublin, Ireland, and is now furthering her work for eight weeks this summer at King’s College in London, England.

UW’s Neuroscience Center was able to afford Pitynski, from Chicago, Ill., these unique opportunities with funding from a National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) grant. Part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the NIGMS supports basic research that increases understanding of biological processes and lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

The grant, which stretches back to 2000 at UW with NIH origins, was renewed in 2011 in the amount of $5.2 million, says Bill Flynn, professor and director of UW’s Neuroscience Program and Neuroscience Center.

The Neuroscience Center grant supports neuroscience research projects, the Microscopy Facility, and is an integral component of the Graduate Neuroscience Program in that it provides funding for students and unique educational opportunities, such as Pitynski’s overseas project.

“The grant funding, along with institutional support, has helped enable the growth of the neuroscience program and the development of research infrastructure, particularly the Microscopy Facility,” Flynn says.

“It’s (NIGMS grant) been primarily responsible for developing the neuroscience program at UW,” adds Donal Skinner, professor and head of the Department of Zoology and Physiology. “It’s created a genuine cross-college interaction that is more than something that’s just on paper.”

The Neuroscience Center grant also provides funding to support the research projects of neuroscience faculty from several UW departments and colleges, often working in an interdisciplinary fashion. These funds enable investigators to collect additional preliminary data that will be used in grant applications to the NIH and other funding agencies.

These investigators and their projects include:

-- Skinner, “Salt and Sex: Is There a Link?” Dietary salt intake is linked to various human disorders, such as hypertension. Interestingly, the brain systems that control salt intake have commonalities with the brain systems regulating reproduction. Skinner and his team examined if there was cross-talk between these two seemingly disparate systems and identified that changes in dietary salt intake affected the onset of puberty in an animal model. The reasons for this interaction are now being explored.

With additional support from the British Neuroendocrine Society as well as UW’s International Programs, Pitynski is following up on this UW study to determine the “why” of their prior results.

“We don’t know. That’s partly what she’s doing in London. She’s testing a hypothesis,” says Skinner, who mentored Pitynski during the UW study. “We think the systems activated by salt are cross-talking with reproductive systems. This was not known beforehand.”

-- Travis Brown, assistant professor of pharmaceutical science, School of Pharmacy, College of Health Sciences, “Fatty Foods Change the Reward Circuitry of the Brain.” Obesity is an epidemic with staggering consequences for the individual and the health care system. This study’s hypothesis is that the overconsumption of fatty foods is linked to cues (the picture of food, smells) that come to activate reward pathways in the brain, and this leads to the consumption of foods in the absence of a physiological need. The study finds that cues associated with fatty foods change the reward circuitry, and this is associated with the craving for fatty foods. 

-- Jonathan H. Fox, associate professor of veterinary sciences; and Jason Gigley, assistant professor of molecular biology, College of Agriculture, “Interaction Between Neuro-inflammation and the Progression of Huntington’s disease.” Huntington's disease (HD) is a devastating disorder that causes the loss of nerve cells in the brain. The goal of this project is to determine if clinically silent infections intensify the progression of HD in mice by promoting brain inflammation. Results show that the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, which is a common infection in people, results in rapid disease progression in HD mice. Using drugs that target specific infections may slow the progression of HD.

-- Kara G. Pratt, assistant professor of zoology and physiology, College of Arts and Sciences, “The Role of Presenilin in a Developing Neural Circuit.” Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a neurological disorder characterized by progressive and irreversible decline in cognition and memory. Mutations in presenilin proteins are a cause of familial Alzheimer’s disease. It is becoming clear, however, that presenilin is necessary for proper neural development. The study finds that presenilin affects the electrical excitability of developing visual system neurons, and early actions of presenilin may produce long-term changes in brain function.

“We want to provide additional funding for neuroscience researchers to better enable them to establish their research programs so they become competitive to write grants that have a better chance of being funded,” Skinner says.

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