Iowa Neuroscience Institute building research collaborations to tackle brain disorders


By Aleksandra Vujicic

Communications Coordinator, Department of Psychiatry

University of Iowa leaders recently unveiled a new hub for neuroscience research to tackle some of the most challenging psychiatric and neurologic diseases.

The Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust donated an unprecedented $45 million to support the Iowa Neuroscience Institute, a cross-disciplinary center for researchers who are focused on finding causes and treatments for brain disorders. 

Ted Abel, PhD

Director, Iowa Neuroscience Institute

“The gift is a huge vote of confidence in what we’ve got here at the University of Iowa now in terms of the brain sciences. Coupled with what was an already very substantial institutional investment  in the Institute, this gift enables us to build on these strengths going forward,” said Dr. James Potash, UI Professor and Chair of Psychiatry.

The UI has distinguished traditions in three major departments related to the brain sciences—psychiatry, as well as psychology and neurology—which have made major contributions to the field, Potash said.  And the new institute will facilitate collaborations among researchers across departments and specialties.

“We’ve got a lot of strengths to build on,” Potash said. “With new infusion of resources our goal is to go from being strong in these areas to being world leaders.”

The new institute was dedicated Feb. 3 and Ted Abel, PhD, joined the UI faculty in January as its first director. Abel comes from the University of Pennsylvania where he served as a Professor of Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences and co-directed the Biological Basis of Behavior Program.

“It’s an exciting time to be a neuroscientist in Iowa City,” said Abel, adding that he hopes to build a campus-wide neuroscience community that makes revolutionary discoveries and translates them into clinical treatments.  

To do that, Abel will guide researchers and clinicians across the University in collaborative efforts aimed at developing a better understanding of particular disease areas, including autism, epilepsy, mood and anxiety disorders, neurodegenerative disease, and brain and nervous system trauma.  

Potash, who co-chaired the committee that selected Abel to lead the Institute, called Abel a very accomplished neuroscientist with an engaging personality.  

“He’s a great team builder, which is exactly the kind of person you need to pull all these pieces together,” Potash said.

Abel and Potash have been working closely together since Abel was hired roughly six months ago to develop a joint vision for the neurosciences. The two have been working on joint hires and developing a broad interest group around autism.

“[The Institute] is going to give us the opportunity to bring some really outstanding psychiatric researchers from around the country and around the world here to Iowa City,” Potash said.

Krystal Parker, PhD, was the first joint hire and she has already moved into the Institute’s lab space in the Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building. Parker’s latest research explores the cerebellum’s role in cognition, and her work was recently published in Molecular Psychiatry, one of the leading journals in the field.

Krystal Parker, PhD

“One of the perks of being part of both the Institute and the Department of Psychiatry is that the resources are available to maintain a highly translational lab, one that can take basic science findings and work on how they can make a difference for patients,” Parker said.

She explained that researchers will have access to the Neuroscience Institute's developing community of scientists with expertise in probing the basic workings of the brain in the lab, while also having access to patients interested in participating in studies through collaborations within Psychiatry.

And partnerships with clinical departments, such as Psychiatry, will enable researchers to bring ideas and data from clinical applications back to the lab to inspire more basic science.  

“Anything is possible,” Parker said. “With the right resources and reaching out to the right people, the Institute is really going to allow us to be innovative and on the cutting edge of science.”

Monday, February 13, 2017