Hultman wins McKnight Neurobiology of Brain Disorders Award

Date: Friday, December 18, 2020

Rainbo Hultman, photo

Rainbo Hultman, PhD, assistant professor of molecular physiology and biophysics and a member of the Iowa Neuroscience Institute, is one of three winners of the 2021 Neurobiology of Brain Disorders Awards from the McKnight Endowment Fund.

The McKnight award supports innovative research by U.S. scientists who are studying neurological and psychiatric diseases. 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. Hultman’s three-year, $300,000 award supports her research to create a brain-wide map of the electrical activity present in migraine, particularly through the development of chronic migraine and test the effect of therapeutics and prophylactics on this activity.

Migraine is a widespread, often debilitating disorder. It is complex and notoriously difficult to treat; people affected by migraine have differing symptoms, often triggered by sensory hypersensitivity, that may include pain, nausea, visual impairment, and other effects.

“Migraine affects multiple interconnected parts of the brain, but not always in the same way, and treatments often won’t have the same effect from person to person,” Hultman said. This migraine research is part of Hultman’s broader effort to map and manipulate brain-wide networks of electrical activity, which was recently recognized with an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.

“The novel thing about these "electomes" is that they are both spatially comprehensive and temporally precise,” she says. “So, we are able to see, for the first time, how such activity is coordinated across the brain on a timescale consistent with flow of electrical activity through neurons firing across brain regions.”

Using implants to measure brain activity in mouse models representing both acute and chronic migraine, her team will observe which parts of a mouse brain are activated and in what sequence on a millisecond scale for the first time. Machine learning will help organize the collected data, and the electome maps created can be used to help identify the parts of the brain affected, and how the electome changes over time. The experiment also examines electrical activity patterns tied to behavioral response; for example, the electrical signals observed in the brain of a subject who seeks to avoid bright lights may offer a way to predict more severe responses to migraine.

Hultman’s research will then use the same tools to look at how available therapeutics and prophylactics work. Electome factors of subjects treated with these therapeutics will be collected and compared with controls to identify what parts of the brain are affected and in what way, helping reveal the effect of each therapeutic/prophylactic, as well as the effects of medication overuse headache, a common side effect experienced by people affected by migraine who seek to manage their condition.

The Iowa Neuroscience Institute was created with a $45 million grant to the UI from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, and seeks revolutionary discoveries in fundamental neuroscience to translate an understanding of how the brain works into clinical treatments for disorders of the brain and nervous system.

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.