UK Neuroscience Research Priority Area Brings Diverse Groups Together to Advance Studies

By Hillary Smith

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 30, 2021) — The University of Kentucky’s Neuroscience Research Priority Area supports a "collaborative matrix," bringing together diverse groups of investigators, trainees and research groups from nine different colleges across the University of Kentucky campus.

“The key underlying strategy of the NRPA is to provide broad-based support for basic, translational and clinical neuroscience-related research across campus,” said NRPA Co-Director Dr. Larry Goldstein, Ruth Louise Works Endowed professor and chairman of UK College of Medicine’s Department of Neurology. “We can uniquely bring together investigators from different laboratories or groups to develop synergies advancing collaborations and supporting trainees, particularly those from underrepresented groups.”

The NRPA members collaborate as well as utilize valuable resources within the research area, including statistical support and UK’s NeuroBank. The NeuroBank, one of the initial research area initiatives, collects a variety of biospecimens from subjects being evaluated and treated for neurologic conditions at the UK's Albert B. Chandler Hospital and the Kentucky Neuroscience Institute.

Dr. Tritia Yamasaki, assistant professor of neurology, focuses her research on Parkinson's disease and related neurodegenerative conditions. As a movement disorder specialist, she sees individuals in clinic with these conditions and she’s in charge of UK’s NeuroBank.

“My role in NeuroBank has allowed me to work with a great group of people to promote research utilizing human samples,” Yamasaki said. “There is amazing research going on across campus by hundreds of neuroscientists.”

Yamasaki meets with investigators to hear about the research they are conducting, and her team then helps figure out how to best support their projects with human samples. Often this involves thinking creatively about how to integrate sample collection into the clinical workflow to obtain the material needed for the research.

She says they do this by approaching patients in the ambulatory clinic and various hospital settings. Additionally, they work with the pathology department, neurosurgeons, the clinical laboratory, and the epilepsy monitoring unit to obtain patient consent and participation.

“There are thousands of patients with neurologic diseases being seen by physicians in our hospitals and clinics daily, some with rare types of conditions about which very little is known, or others who are in desperate need of effective therapies to halt neurodegenerative conditions,” Yamasaki said.

The NeuroBank leader says being able to combine resources in UK’s clinical settings with the vast research community on campus, is an extremely effective way to advance their work in understanding neurological diseases and developing therapies. “Animal models are a crucial part of research, but the ultimate test for any discovery about human disease will be whether the same phenomenon is also seen in the human condition, which is much more complex, given the interplay of genetic and environmental influences,” said Yamasaki.

Ramon Sun is an assistant professor of neuroscience in the UK College of Medicine and works with the Markey Cancer CenterSanders-Brown Center on Aging (SBCoA) and Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center (SCoBIRC). He is one of the researchers who knows firsthand the value of being a part of the NRPA and having access to resources in the NeuroBank.

“The highly collaborative nature of the investigators in the NRPA allows for transdisciplinary, high-impact, cutting-edge research,” Sun said. “The rich resources of the NRPA that include equipment, banked human specimens, and core services allow for rapid advances in both basic and clinical research in neuroscience.”

The collaborative work cultivated within the research area recently led Sun and Matthew Gentry, professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry and director of the Lafora Epilepsy Cure Initiative at the UK College of Medicine, to discover that glucose — the sugar used for cellular energy production — was not the only sugar contained in glycogen in the brain. Brain glycogen also contained another sugar called glucosamine. The full study was recently published in Cell Metabolism

While looking at various components, factors and diseases of the human brain is what most people might think of when they hear “neuroscience research,” there is much more that plays into the far-reaching category – including the Western honey bee.

“It is a species with a deep behavioral research history, extensive neuroscience and genomics tools, and it has one of the most sophisticated social lives on the planet,” said Clare Rittschof, assistant professor, UK College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment's Department of Entomology.

Rittschof’s research is focused on brain metabolic regulation, its links to behavior in the honeybee, and its links to human brain health. She says the NRPA has given her an exciting opportunity to grow a new and unusual area of her research.

“Brain metabolic processes are best studied in a medical context as they are associated with neurodegenerative disease and dementia,” Rittschof said. “However, they are also tied to honeybee aggression, a behavior I have studied for about 10 years.”

Thanks to the research area, Rittschof has been collaborating with colleagues in the UK College of Medicine, and together they have discovered that honeybee brain metabolism shares many of the features of metabolism in the brains of mammals and humans. However, there also may be key differences that can be leveraged to improve human brain function.

“Working at a large research university with a medical college has been invaluable for me,” Rittschof said. “There are resources, and most importantly, scientists at UK that would not be available on a smaller, less diverse campus. I love working on projects that span discipline boundaries in unusual ways.”

Rittschof and others like Josh Morganti, an assistant professor of neuroscience who works with SBCoA and SCoBIRC, also acknowledge the important role the NRPA plays in providing funds for the groundwork of their various research projects that then allows them to seek funding for their ideas from resources such as the National Institutes of Health. Morganti’s lab recently received a large R01 grant from the National Institute on Aging of the NIH to examine how inflammatory responses of glia regulate age-related neurodegeneration following traumatic brain injury.

“Being a part of the NRPA has allowed a great facilitation for collaboration and collaborative projects, which has helped in terms of funding as well as project completion using cutting-edge approaches across multiple labs,” said Morganti.

While Morganti has been collaborating at UK for a few years now, the NRPA also benefits new researchers on campus like Lauren Whitehurst, assistant professor, College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychology.

“The offerings of this office are really invaluable to the development of new faculty members like me,” she said.

Whitehurst, who just completed her first year as a faculty member at UK, studies the importance of sleep for our health and well-being, while also trying to understand how stress and sleep interact to affect how we think, learn and remember information. In her first year, she says she’s already engaged within the NRPA in multiple ways.

“I submitted two pilot grants to support some new research in my lab examining sleep’s role in neurodegenerative disease and its impact on memory in trauma-exposed women,” Whitehurst said. “I have also been fortunate to mentor an undergraduate student who received funding through the NEURO summer fellowship sponsored by the NRPA, as well.”

Each of these researcher’s ongoing projects and personal experiences exemplify exactly what the NRPA was established for — to build upon and leverage existing strengths and relationships — while providing infrastructure and support to promote research collaborations and raise internal and external recognition of the depth of neuroscience-related research at UK. The NRPA is doing all of this with the goals of growing extramural support, increasing academic productivity, enhancing recruitment of faculty and trainees, and providing new knowledge to address the needs of the citizens of the Commonwealth and beyond.

“The NRPA is a valuable part of the UK research community because it provides an infrastructure and resources that benefit neuroscience research broadly across the campus,” said NRPA Co-Director Linda Van Eldik, Ph.D., SBCoA director, professor of neuroscience, and Dr. E. Vernon Smith and Eloise C. Smith Alzheimer's Research Endowed Chair. “The NRPA is facilitating exciting new collaborations and interactions between basic/translational and clinical teams.”

The NRPA is part of the UK Research Priorities Initiative, funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research. This initiative encompasses seven priority areas: cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes & obesity, diversity & inclusion, energy, neuroscience, and substance use disorder. These areas were chosen based on local relevance, existing funding strength, sustainability and disciplinary scholarly diversity.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health under Award Numbers R35NS116824 and P01NS097197, the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health under Award Numbers R01AG066653, R01AG062550 and R01AG070830, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01DK27221, and the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number P30CA177558. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.

 

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