Symposium reveals potential for new partnerships
If you can read this, breathe in and out, stand up, sit down, twist and shout – you can thank your neurons and the wildly complex pathways and lightning speed with which they traverse your entire self, carrying messages to and from your brain.
The study of those astonishing neural circuits and networks is on the rise in the region and at the University of Delaware, which has increased its research capacity with new faculty and neuroimaging technology in recent years.
Now the question is how to better connect and make the most of this expanding expertise? That was the focus of the University’s first Neuroscience Symposium, a daylong event that drew about 130 faculty, researchers, clinicians and students to the STAR Tower on Friday, Feb. 22.
Two leading authorities in the field spent the day with the gathering — Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, and Prof. Randolph Nudo, an expert in neuroplasticity and recovery after stroke and University Distinguished Professor and Vice Chair of Research in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine, and the Marion Merrell Dow Distinguished Professor in Aging at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
Koroshetz said NIH puts more money (currently $7.3 billion) into neuroscience research than any other health problem, including cancer, infectious diseases and cardiovascular issues.
The grant process is “hyper-competitive,” he said, because the NIH wants to fund the best science, based on good ideas and good data.
“The field is amazingly robust and there is a tremendous amount of exciting things going on in the field,” he said.
NINDS is interested in training the workforce and supporting initiatives it sees as critical to the future, he said. It now supports research on about 400 different diseases, with new funding for initiatives focused on addiction and pain management (the HEAL Initiative) and on brain circuits (the BRAIN Initiative), Koroshetz said.
“These diseases are tragic disorders,” he said. “Folks that have had disorders of the neural system are at tremendous disadvantage unless we can do something to help them.”
Basic, translational and clinical research all are supported by NINDS, with strong emphasis on quantitative training and rigor on experiment design “so that you don’t get the answer you want, you get the answer that’s true,” he said.
The tools and technology of neuroscience are advancing rapidly — getting better and better, Koroshetz said, and enabling increasingly precise strategies. Those advances also bring the continuing need to address serious ethical issues, he said. Treatments that can change behavior and manipulate cells, for example, must address those concerns, he said.
The symposium was sponsored by UD’s Research Office, Delaware INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence), Delaware’s Center for Translational Research ACCEL Program, and Graduate and Professional Education.
In addition to UD, participants included researchers and clinicians from Delaware State University, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children and Christiana Care Health System.
They shared research highlights during “lightning-round” presentations, quick sketches of work in progress throughout the region. They had opportunity to consider cross-disciplinary work and new collaborative projects. And they met for discussion in small groups focused on cellular, clinical, behavioral, computational and cognitive neuroscience, and later looked at opportunities for seminars and workshops, took stock of available core facilities and explored the potential development of a doctoral program and Neuroscience Institute at UD.
“I’m really pleased that so many faculty, post-docs and graduate students representing diverse disciplines with a common interest in neuroscience came out for the day,” said Anshuman “A.R.” Razdan, associate vice president for research development.
“We have a great challenge because we do not have a medical school,” he said, “but there is a unique opportunity to further build UD’s interdisciplinary neuroscience aspirations in collaboration with our InBRE and CTR partners on the strong foundations currently represented here. We have heard great interest in developing an Institute and a Ph.D. program. I am looking forward to assessments of our current capabilities and capacities and recommendations for growth as an outcome of the symposium.”
Doctoral students Nick Heroux, Megan Warren and Tiffany Doherty all said they heard a lot of excitement among participants.
“The idea of creating an interdisciplinary program is really a good one for the University,” Heroux said. “I didn’t know half of what was going on here, and I think everybody was excited to talk to each other about their work.”
Keith Schneider, director of UD’s Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging and associate professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, agreed.
“It was a great first start to get everyone interested in neuroscience together,” he said. “There are so many people and so many departments involved now, we need a central infrastructure to coordinate everyone and facilitate collaborations.”
Rebecca Brockson, a physical therapist at Christiana Care and a UD alum, was glad to hear Nudo’s presentation on neuroplasticity and recovery after stroke. Her work with stroke patients starts within 24 hours of the incident and there is not a lot of research that covers the earliest phases of treatment.
Nudo said timing is everything in these cases — the sooner the brain injury is addressed, the better the chance for re-establishing essential connections.
“How soon does that timing effect start?” Brockson said. “These guys are working on it.”
A white paper with findings and recommendations from the event will be developed and submitted to leadership for consideration.
The symposium planning committee included nine faculty members: Co-chairs John Jeka (chairman, Kinesiology and Applied Physiology) and Anna Klintsova (Psychological and Brain Sciences) and committee members Naya Banerjee (Mathematics), Thomas Buchanan (Delaware Rehabilitation Institute), Deni Galileo (Biological Sciences), Arild Hestvik (Linguistics and Cognitive Science), Susanne Morton (Physical Therapy), Keith Schneider (Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging) and Fabrizio Sergi (Biomedical Engineering).
Neuroscience at UD
A wide variety of neuroscience-related research is in progress at UD, including clinical, cellular and developmental, computational, behavioral and cognitive.
Work includes areas such as stroke recovery, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, mild cognitive impairment, Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, concussion, gait and balance disorders, chronic pain and neurorehabilitation.
Brain imaging, brain plasticity, studies in learning and memory, biomechanics and robotics, especially for sensory, motor sensory and cognitive assessment, along with studies of social behavior and linguistics all are part of the mix.