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Research Programs of Excellence


The INI has funded five Research Programs of Excellence to focus collaborative efforts on key areas of research. A multidisciplinary approach is a key strength of these projects, which draw together researchers from the traditional neuroscience disciplines of neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, and psychology, but also include biomedical engineers, computer scientists, and experts in brain imaging, genetics, and cell biology. Additionally, the Early Career Research Programs of Excellence support promising faculty researchers at the early stage of their careers.

​Nandakumar Narayanan, MD, PhD, leads the Neuromodulation Research Program of Excellence. The team is investigating brain stimulation, or neuromodulation, a technique that alters neuronal activity with pulses of electricity. The Iowa researchers are exploring the idea that the frequency of pulses is key to their effect. They hope to identify how frequency-specific stimulation to different brain regions can influence motor, cognitive, and emotional symptoms associated with conditions like Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. The overarching goal is to develop and hone next-generation brain stimulation therapies.

Biopolar Disorder
The Bipolar Disorder Research Program of Excellence, led by John Wemmie, MD, PhD, uses brain imaging, genetics and epigenetics, circuit level mechanistic studies, and neuromodulation to probe brain circuits that regulate mood state and that are disrupted in bipolar disorder. In particular, the team is focused on the role of the cerebellum in bipolar disorder. Information from these studies will help develop new diagnostic and therapeutic tools to help patients with bipolar disorder.

Neuronal Ion Channels
The Composition and Trafficking of Neuronal Ion Channels Research Program of Excellence, led by Chris Ahern, PhD, is investigating the molecular and genetic maintenance of electrical signaling, with a focus on sodium channel complexes. This work informs the development of new therapies for the treatment of diseases such as inherited and acquired pain disorders, epilepsy, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and muscular dystrophy. 

Mitochondrial Dynamics and Calcium Cycling
The Mitochondrial Dynamics and Calcium Cycling in Neuronal Injury, Excitability and Plasticity Research Program of Excellence, led by Stefan Strack, PhD, and Yuriy Usachev, PhD, uses state-of-the-art imaging techniques and behavioral analysis in novel transgenic mouse models to learn more about the effects of mitochondrial dynamics and Ca2+ cycling in the brain at the molecular and cellular levels. The team also is exploring how this information could be useful in developing therapies for neurodegenerative disease and epilepsy. 

Curing Heritable Blindness
The Science Behind Curing Heritable Blindness Research Program of Excellence, led by Val Sheffield, MD, PhD, and Ed Stone, MD, PhD, focuses on the genetics and disease mechanisms underlying inherited blindness and seeks to translate discoveries into therapies including gene therapy, pharmaceuticals, and genome editing.

Early Career Research Programs of Excellence (2019-2021)

Understanding the amygdala’s role in controlling breathing
Brian Dlouhy, MDseeks to understand the mechanisms behind breathing impairment during and after seizures, a critical risk factor for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy - the most common cause of death in patients with chronic refractory epilepsy. His previous work found that when seizure activity spreads to the amygdala, it can induce apnea and oxygen desaturation. Using both animal models and human epilepsy patients, his work seeks to identify individuals at risk for sudden unexpected death in epilepsy, define the amygdala-brainstem pathway that causes seizure induced loss of breathing, and develop new circuit-based interventions with already approved drugs or novel neurosurgical techniques.

Voltage-gated calcium channels in developmental models of neuropsychiatric disease
Aislinn Williams, MD, PhDuses both animal and human models to study the mechanisms by which alterations in genes at the earliest stages of brain development increase risk for psychiatric disease, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Her work aims to unravel how genes are changing during development and how these changes affect adult brain function. Identifying the developmental pathways involved in neuropsychiatric disease may lead to novel treatment targets.

Early Career Research Programs of Excellence (2017-2019)

Hanna Stevens, MD, PhD, studied how prenatal environmental factors, including maternal stress, environmental exposures, and genes affect early brain development, with the goal of understanding how these factors influence the risk of subsequent behavioral and psychiatric disorders.

Jan Wessel, PhD, investigated cognitive and motor control in health and disease with a view to understanding how motor and cognitive activity is optimally geared toward changing situational demands, and how age- and disease-related impairments to these functions can be alleviated.