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INI awards four Accelerator Grants

The Iowa Neuroscience Institute has awarded four Accelerator Grants to support high-impact neuroscience research in areas that are new or add value to existing research by branching in a new direction. This year’s grants support research on early detection of cognitive decline, basic characterization of a specific set of neurons, pediatric traumatic brain injury, and pediatric epilepsy.

“In an impressive and innovative group of applications, these four projects clearly rose to the top as taking neuroscience in important new directions,” said Ted Abel, INI director. “They also confirm the axiom that diverse teams foster creativity and innovation. This group of scientists and their collaborators includes first generation scholars as well as scientists from underrepresented backgrounds. We know this is the future of neuroscience, and we are excited to see where these leaders take us.”

Abel also noted that the four projects that rose to the top happened to be proposed by clinicians, which highlights the close connections between clinical research and fundamental neuroscience science within the INI.

The following projects were selected from among 14 applications and were awarded varying funding based on project needs.

Natalie Denburg, PhD“Use of Linguistic Biomarkers in Middle Age to Detect Cognitive Decline in Older Adulthood.”
Natalie Denburg, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Neurology

Denburg has collaborated with social scientists at the UI Labor Center to access a population of older adults (65+ years of age) who provided speech samples while in their middle age years (40 to 60 years of age) as part of the Iowa Labor History Oral Project. Her project will use artificial intelligence and features of speech (such as differences in tone, pitch, rate of speech, semantic or grammatical errors) that have shown the greatest promise for distinguishing between healthy individuals and those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, in conjunction with present-day neuropsychological performance, to determine if certain features of speech can be used to predict a future diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, potentially decades in advance. To date, there is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The modest gains that have been observed in slowing disease progression are associated with earlier treatment administration as a result of earlier detection.

“Neural circuit investigation of the mysterious neurons that produce neuropeptide S (NPS)”
Joel Geerling, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neurology

Geerling’s project focuses on the neurons that produce a specific peptide, neuropeptide S (NPS), which has been shown to promote wakefulness while simultaneously decreasing anxiety. Current anti-anxiety medications cause people to feel less alert, while stimulant medications typically increase anxiety. NPS represents a therapeutic target to modulate sleep and arousal. We know very little about the neurons that produce NPS, their developmental origin, connectivity, or behavioral effects. Geerling and his team will develop a mouse model to begin characterizing the neurons that produce NPS.


Elizabeth Newell, MD

“Targeting the microglial response following pediatric traumatic brain injury.”
Elizabeth Newell, MD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics

Newell seeks to identify age-dependent and cell-specific mechanisms of chronic neurodegeneration following pediatric traumatic brain injury (TBI). Annually, 500,000 children suffer from TBI resulting in 7,000 TBI-related deaths. There are no pharmacologic therapies for TBI. Due to the significant brain maturation that occurs across childhood and adolescence, an improved understanding of age-dependent secondary injury responses is necessary for effective therapy development. The goal of this project is to identify age-dependent alterations in microglial reactivity that impact brain recovery and represent therapeutic targets. As TBI is a leading cause of pediatric death and disability, translation of this research has the potential to dramatically impact childhood health.


Saul Wilson, MD“Novelty detection in children with epilepsy”
Saul Wilson, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Neurosurgery

Wilson’s project will investigate the mechanism for detection and identification of novel sounds, which has a direct role in memory processing and is important for memory retrieval. He is specifically interested in understanding detection of novel sounds in children with epilepsy. The project will use intracranial EEG, a type of electrophysiological monitoring that uses electrodes placed directly on the exposed surface of the brain to record electrical activity from the cerebral cortex. The findings should elucidate the specific brain regions engaged in novelty detection and the negative effects of seizures and anticonvulsant drugs on memory processes in children. 


Monday, November 16, 2020