WVU Receives $10 Million from NIH

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The National Institutes of Health recently awarded the West Virginia University Sensory Neuroscience Research Center a research award totaling more than $10 million over the next five years.

The grant will continue and expand the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (CoBRE) established five years ago at WVU. The interdisciplinary center includes researchers from several medical and biological sciences departments at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center.

Sensory neuroscience is the study of the parts of the brain that deal with the five senses, and how those senses are affected by disease and disorders. Until quite recently, scientific understanding of these complex processes was extremely limited. But a wide range of new technologies and scientific approaches are being combined at WVU to give researchers new insights into how human and animal brains process sight, sound, taste, odor and touch.

“To give just a couple of examples, we utilize state-of-the-art imaging techniques – functional MRI  and PET/CT in our studies of the human brain and laser-based light microscopy  combined with advanced genetics in our study of mice,” says George Spirou, Ph.D., director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Neuroscience, which coordinates research in all areas of neuroscience at the Health Sciences Center. “These technical approaches allow our scientists to have unprecedented access to the workings of living neural networks, and may reveal new principles for the development of sensory systems.”

The ongoing research touches on all five senses, and how they brain interprets the information received from the senses.

Max Sokolov, Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology is studying the biochemistry of the retina’s response to light stimuli. Ben Ramsden, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy is also interested in vision, but his focus is on how color information and form come together in the visual center of the brain.

How sound is identified and analyzed is the subject of James Lewis, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology.  Dr. Lewis’ research, examining how sounds from different categories, such as mechanical, speech or animal, activate different areas of the hearing cortex. Kevin Daly, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, is studying the sense of smell, and how odors are encoded by the brain for identification. The research of Aric Agmon, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy, focuses on understanding the workings of the cerebral cortex, and its transformation of the input from the senses into perception.

According to Dr. Spirou, the grant will be used to leverage the recruitment of new faculty. “The grant funding will be used to establish extramurally funded research programs within the labs,” he said. “Since the first grant was awarded in 2000, we have doubled the number of researchers in the sensory neuroscience center. We expect to add an additional four researchers over the next 18 months, and six to ten researchers across all areas of neuroscience. The grant funds will also be used to purchase equipment for use by researchers throughout the university. Furthermore, it supports an active mentoring plan for junior faculty as they establish their independent research programs.”

“The WVU Byrd Health Sciences Center continues to be at the forefront of

advancements in modern medicine,” said U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd. “The university's top-notch researchers are uncovering new aspects of human biology and helping to develop treatments for debilitating illnesses. This award will allow WVU to increase its brain power and expand its multi-faceted research program. I commend the Health Sciences Center on this recognition of its important work.”

Robert M. D’Alessandri, M.D., vice president for health sciences at WVU, says the competitive research awards won by the CoBRE and other faculty in the Health Sciences Center are the fruit of decades of work establishing and expanding the research infrastructure. “With the help of Senator Robert C. Byrd, and other supporters of the HSC, we’re been able to build and equip state-of-the-art laboratories for our biosciences faculty,” he said. “This allows them to compete on a level playing field with other research universities.”

“This is an important step in our strategic research plan,” said John E. Prescott, M.D., dean of the school of medicine. “It also aids the long-term goal of raising the institution’s national reputation and rank, as well as aiding in regional economic development. Finally, cutting-edge patient care will result, as research results are moved from the laboratory to the hospital.”

- WVU -

For more information:
Bill Case, HSC News Service, (304) 293-7087

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