High Impact/High Risk grant winners named

Pieper studies aspects of neuronal cell growth; Kavalali continues work on synapses

By Amanda Siegfried

Two faculty members exploring the frontiers of neuroscience have received funding for projects through UT South­west­ern’s High Impact/High Risk Re­search Program.

Dr. Andrew Pieper

The projects are led by Dr. Andrew Pieper, assistant professor of psy­chi­atry, and Dr. Ege Kavalali, associate professor of neuroscience and phy­siology and a Cain Foundation Scholar in Medical Research.

The emphasis of the UT South­west­ern Medical School program is on research that has the potential to greatly influence the science or prac­tice of medicine even though there is a substantial risk of failure. Grant recipients are funded for a year to test a hypothesis and determine whether the idea has promise.

With the addition of the new recipients, 30 faculty members have received grants through the program since it was established in 2001.

Dr. Pieper is investigating whether enhancing new neuronal cell growth, or neurogenesis, in a region of the brain called the hippocampus can help pre­vent or make more bearable cognitive deficits associated with aging. Together with Dr. Steven McKnight, chairman of biochemistry, he has developed an innovative screening project in living mice to iden­tify novel small, druglike mole­cules that one day could, in humans, augment neurogenesis in the adult brain. With a few promising candi­date molecules already in hand, the next step for him and his colleagues is to test his ideas in animal models of neuropsychiatric disease.

Dr. Ege Kavalali

“If our hypothesis is correct, then our work would provide a basis for the development of new pharmacological agents for treating cognitive decline with aging,” Dr. Pieper said. “If it proves incorrect, and deficits in learn­ing and memory are not ameliorated by augmenting hippocampal neuro­genesis, this also would be an im­portant finding for the field of aging research.”

Dr. Kavalali will use his grant to investigate the use of light signals to switch on and off connections be­tween nerve cells, called synapses. In his research, he uses a light-sensitive protein derived from a single-celled microorganism called Halobacterium salinarum. The release of neuro­trans­mitter substances from nerve cells, such as brain cells, that have been altered genetically to express this protein can be either triggered or suppressed with pulses of light. Dr. Kavalali’s project will investigate whether stimulating such cells with different patterns of light signals can affect the communication between cells, as well as the behavior of a model organism in which the cells reside – in this case, a fruit fly.

“Our aim is to develop this tech­nology to manipulate synaptic trans­mission rapidly and reversibly,” Dr. Kavalali said.