Wemmie named Roy J. Carver Chair in Psychiatry and Neuroscience

By Aleksandra Vujicic

​Communications Coordinator, Department of Psychiatry 

A leading physician-scientist who has been described as a ‘humble genius’ on his groundbreaking research in the Department of Psychiatry, has recently expanded his long list of accolades.

John Wemmie, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry, neurosurgery, physiology, and biophysics, has been named the Roy J. Carver Chair in Psychiatry and Neuroscience, a high honor given to distinguished faculty members that helps financially boost their research efforts.

“This is a way to propel or propagate research efforts over time and it’s also a very nice honor,” Wemmie said. “It allows us to take on higher-risk projects that might ultimately have greater impact.”

Wemmie was awarded alongside Iowa Neuroscience Institute (INI) Director Ted Abel, PhD, who is now the Roy J. Carver Chair in Neuroscience. The endowed Chairs are funded by a historic $45 million gift from the Roy J. Carver Trust, which also established the INI last year.

Wemmie, who runs the Molecular Psychiatry Division and is the Associate Director of Translational Research in the INI, has done innovative work on acid-sensing ion channels in the brain, leading to major discoveries and national grant funding.

Wemmie’s research: ‘from molecule, to mice, to man’

Since the body normally maintains neutral pH levels, Wemmie was puzzled when he learned that a number of receptors in the brain were activated by acidic pH.

“My whole career has been built on that question: why do we have these receptors?” he said. “And are there more things to learn about dynamic small fluctuations in pH that are important for health and disease in the brain?”

Wemmie discovered that when the receptors were removed in mice, they behaved very differently and their brain function was altered.

“That’s a piece of evidence that pH and these receptors provide some really important role in brain function, behavior, thinking, and emotion,” Wemmie said. “Over time we’ve linked them to behaviors relevant to depression, anxiety, and drug addiction.”

Wemmie says the absence of these channels may be a therapy for anxiety and depression. Conversely, the channels may help restrain and prevent addictive behaviors.

“The goal ultimately is to learn enough about these channels and to develop ways to manipulate them so they can actually be translated into diagnostic and therapeutic strategies,” he said.

He additionally launched a project with Vince Magnotta, PhD, professor of radiology, psychiatry, and biomedical engineering to translate this work into humans through brain imaging of pH in patients with panic disorder and bipolar disorder.

“His lab works from molecule to mouse to man,” said Peg Nopoulos, MD, Interim Chair of Psychiatry. “That's an accomplishment I think very few people do. It's one of the most brilliant things about taking something that's very singular-focused, but being able to expand it along the entire spectrum of science.”

Wemmie currently has several active grants from the National Institutes of Health, receives additional funding from the VA, and is leading a multidisciplinary Bipolar Disorder Research Program of Excellence, funded by the INI.

The endowed Chair award and the INI are infusing a significant amount of support into Wemmie’s work, adding to his already strong momentum.

“There are more collaborators, more funds to do research, broader visibility around the country and the world,” he said. “This synergizes to hopefully increase the visibility and impact of our work.”

Monday, November 20, 2017