Dirk Trauner is the recipient of a 2020 McKnight Memory and Cognitive Disorders Award from the McKnight Endowment for Neuroscience for his work on Parkinsons Disease with Berkeley colleague Ehud Isacoff. One of four funded projects, Photo-activation of Dopamine Receptors in Models of Parkinson's Disease is described below, and with more detail, further below.
THE McKNIGHT ENDOWMENT FUND FOR NEUROSCIENCE
McKNIGHT AWARDS $1.2 MILLION FOR STUDY OF MEMORY AND COGNITIVE DISORDERS
Minneapolis, MN (December 3, 2019) -
The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience has selected four projects to receive the 2020 Memory and Cognitive Disorders Awards. The awards will total $1.2 million over three years for research on the biology of brain diseases, with each project receiving $300,000 between 2020 and 2023.
The Memory and Cognitive Disorders (MCD) Awards support innovative research by U.S. scientists who are studying neurological and psychiatric diseases, especially those related to memory and cognition. The awards encourage collaboration between basic and clinical neuroscience to translate laboratory discoveries about the brain and nervous system into diagnoses and therapies to improve human health.
"We are thrilled to select some of the best scientists and their work in the country this year," said Ming Guo, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the awards committee and Professor in Neurology & Pharmacology at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. "These scientists are addressing questions related to how general anesthesia and sleep impact memory, and how memory works at the basic level. Together, we aim to understand the underlying neurobiology of memory and brain disorders that one day will translate into cures of some of the most devastating brain disorders that afflict millions of people in the world."
The awards are inspired by the interests of William L. McKnight, who founded The McKnight Foundation in 1953 and wanted to support research on diseases affecting memory. His daughter, Virginia McKnight Binger, and The McKnight Foundation board established the McKnight neuroscience program in his honor in 1977.
Up to four awards are given each year. This year's awardees are:
- Ehud Isacoff, Ph.D., Evan Rauch Chair, Department of Neuroscience, University of California, Berkeley; and Dirk Trauner, Ph.D., Janice Cutler Chair in Chemistry and Adjunct Professor of Neuroscience and Physiology, New York University - Photo-activation of Dopamine Receptors in Models of Parkinson's Disease: Dr. Isacoff and Dr. Trauner are investigating whether specialized-designed photo-sensitive molecules can be introduced into the brains of a mice (whose dopamine reception has been impaired in a way that resembles Parkinson's Disease) and have their cognitive function restored through light activation.
- Mazen Kheirbek, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Center for Integrative Neuroscience, University of California, San Francisco; and Jonah Chan, Ph.D., Professor of Neurology, Weill Institute for Neurosciences, University of California, San Francisco - New Myelin Formation in Systems Consolidation and Retrieval of Remote Memories: The research of Dr. Kheirbek and Dr. Chan explores why some memories are easier to recall than others; the focus is on the differing development of myelin sheaths around the axons of some neurons during contextual conditioning.
- Thanos Siapas, Ph.D., Professor of Computation and Neural Systems, Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology - Circuit Dynamics and Cognitive Consequences of General Anesthesia: Dr. Siapas seeks to gain a deeper understanding of how general anesthesia works and how it affects the brain; for the project he plans to record brain activity from anaesthetized mice and use machine learning to uncover patterns, as well as study the long-term effects of anesthesia.
- Carmen Westerberg, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Texas State University; and Ken Paller, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and James Padilla Chair in Arts & Sciences, Department of Psychology, Northwestern University - Does Superior Sleep Physiology Contribute to Superior Memory Function? Implications for Counteracting Forgetting: Dr. Westerberg and Dr. Paller are exploring the role of sleep in memory consolidation by studying individuals with highly superior autobiographical memory. Analyzing how their sleep differs from the general population may enable future research benefitting those who are suffering memory loss.
ABOUT THE McKNIGHT ENDOWMENT FUND FOR NEUROSCIENCE
The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience is an independent organization funded solely by The McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, Minnesota, and led by a board of prominent neuroscientists from around the country. The McKnight Foundation has supported neuroscience research since 1977. The Foundation established the Endowment Fund in 1986 to carry out one of the intentions of founder William L. McKnight (1887-1978), one of the early leaders of the 3M Company.
The Endowment Fund makes three types of awards each year. In addition to the Memory and Cognitive Disorders Awards, they are the McKnight Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Awards, providing seed money to develop technical inventions to advance brain research; and the McKnight Scholar Awards, supporting neuroscientists in the early stages of their research careers.
2020 McKNIGHT MEMORY AND COGNITIVE DISORDER AWARDS - DETAILED DESCRIPTION
Ehud Isacoff, Ph.D., Evan Rauch Chair, Department of Neuroscience, University of California, Berkeley; and Dirk Trauner, Ph.D., Janice Cutler Chair in Chemistry and Adjunct Professor of Neuroscience and Physiology, New York University
Photo-activation of Dopamine Receptors in Models of Parkinson's Disease
Dopamine is generally known for its association with creating positive sensations or for its role in addiction. But in fact, dopamine plays a wide range of roles, and there are five different types of dopamine receptors found in brain cells, each of which has many complicated downstream effects relating to movement, learning, sleep and more. In addition to being a movement disorder, Parkinson's disease is also a cognitive disorder and is brought on by a loss of dopamine input.
Drs. Isacoff and Trauner are exploring new ways to precisely control dopamine receptor activation in brains that mimic the loss of reception found in Parkinson's patients. The lab's approach uses a synthetic photoswitchable tethered ligand (PTL) - essentially, a dopamine mimic attached by a leash to an anchor, which in turn will attach only to specific dopamine receptors in specific cells. The PTLs are introduced into the brain, and optical wires deliver light pulses directly to the areas where the PTLs are, similar to the setup used to deliver electrical impulses in deep brain stimulation. The experiments will observe if animals that have had dopamine signaling knocked out can regain movement control using targeted PTLs and light - instantly, precisely reactivating function with the flip of a switch, without the unintended side effects of pharmacological fixes.
The research conducted by Drs. Isacoff and Trauner will perfect the process of developing and delivering these PTLs and potentially demonstrate their effectiveness. This could result in a new class of treatments not only for Parkinson's, but potentially other brain disorders as well.