The Civitan International Research Center is announcing the availability of trainee travel awards to facilitate presentations at meetings, conferences or symposia related to research and/or clinical activities addressing neurodevelopmental disabilities. Individual awards of up to $1000 will apply toward conference registration fees, airfare, hotel and meals according to UAB travel policy.

Application deadlines will be April 1 and September 1, 2017. 

Applications should include the following in a single pdf file:
·  a description of the travel opportunity and relationship to the trainee program of study
·  a one-page CV from the trainee 
·  a letter of endorsement from the mentor clearly stating how the student will benefit from participation and also that no other support is available for this travel
·  travel budget details
·  copy of abstract – include letter of acceptance 

The mission of the CIRC is to improve the well-being and the quality of life of individuals and families affected by neurodevelopmental disabilities; to provide interdisciplinary clinical and research training in neurodevelopmental disabilities; to utilize this knowledge to develop and provide high quality exemplary services and programs; and to exchange information in a timely way with consumers, practitioners, scientists, and society.

Submission guidelines
Title the subject matter: Travel Application "Last Name"  
Submit to: Vicki Hixon

The Scientist - January 2017 -
By Catherine Offord 
© ROB CULPEPPERJeremy Day: Reward  Researcher
Assistant Professor, University of Alabama at Birmingham  Age: 35

As an undergraduate at Auburn University in the early 2000s, Jeremy Day was thinking of becoming an architect. But an opportunity to work on a research project investigating reward learning in rodents changed the course of his career. “It really hooked me,” he says. “It made me immediately wonder what mecha- nisms were underlying that behavior in the animal’s brain.” It’s a question Day has pursued ever since. In 2004, he enrolled in a PhD program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and began studying neural reward signaling under the mentorship of neu- roscientist Regina Carelli. “He was a stellar student by all accounts,” Carelli recalls. “He was very clear on the type of work he wanted to do, even that early on in his career.” Focusing on the nucleus accum- bens, a brain region involved in associative learning, Day measured dopamine levels in rats undergoing stimulus-reward experiments. Although a rat’s brain released dopamine on receipt of a reward early in training, Day found that, as the rodent became accustomed to spe- cific cues predicting those rewards, this dopamine spike shifted to accompany the cues instead, indicating a changing role for the chem- ical during learning.1 Day completed his PhD in 2009, but realized that to better understand dopamine signaling and errors in the brain’s reward system that lead to addiction, he would need a broader skill set. “I had a strong background in systems neuroscience, but my training in molecular neuroscience was not as strong,” he explains. So he settled on “a field that I knew almost nothing about”—epigenetics—and joined David Sweatt’s lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) as a postdoc. For someone used to a field where “data come in as it’s happening,” Day says, “transitioning to a molecular lab where you might do an assay and you don’t get an answer for a week or two was a culture shock.” Initially, Day investigated epigenetic modification in the nucleus accumbens. “The idea was that we’d block DNA methylation and see if we could also block learning,” he explains. But things didn’t go according to plan. “We worked on that for a couple of years and, basically, all the results from that experiment were negative.” Instead of giving up, Day refocused. “He demonstrated a lot of perseverance,” recalls Sweatt. “It really took commitment and determination to stick with the project.” Leaving the nucleus accumbens, Day tried similar experiments in another site involved in dopaminergic pathways. “We found that if we blocked DNA methylation in that region, we could completely block an animal’s ability to learn about rewards,” Day says.2 In 2013, Day received a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) that helped him set up as an assistant professor at UAB the following year. He has  continued collaborating with Sweatt—now at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine—who calls his former postdoc “a rising star in the discipline.” In 2016, they published evidence that extra-coding RNAs—noncoding RNAs whose sequences overlap with protein- coding regions—help     regulate neuronal DNA methylation in an activity-dependent   manner.3 Now, Day is most excited about CRISPR-Cas9’s potential to explore epigenetics in the brain. “For the first time, we have the ability to look at the causal role for these modifications in gene regulation, neural function, and behavior,” he says. “It’s a really fun time to be in the field.” J

REFERENCES 1. J.J. Day et al., “Associative learning mediates dynamic shifts in dopamine signaling in the nucleus accumbens,” Nat Neurosci, 10:1020-28, 2007.  (Cited  359 times) 2. J.J. Day et al., “DNA methylation regulates associative reward learning,” Nat Neurosci, 16:1445-52, 2013. (Cited 82 times) 3.  K.E. Savell et al., “Extra-coding RNAs regulate neuronal DNA methylation dynamics,” Nat Commun, 7:12091, 2016. (Cited 1 time)
UAB part of global study of breathing issues in Rett syndrome

December 16, 2016 

UAB will study a drug originally developed for Parkinson’s disease that may help reduce breath holding in patients with Rett syndrome.

RS7983 alan percy 2009 6Pediatric neurologist Alan Percy, M.D., is a leading clinician and researcher into Rett Syndrome Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are part of the international STARS study to see if a drug originally developed for Parkinson’s disease might help reduce breathing issues common in patients with Rett syndrome. The drug, sarizotan, may help reduce the frequency of breath holding, a potentially significant effect of Rett syndrome.

“We often see Rett patients holding their breath for long periods of time, up to 30 seconds at a time, behavior that can go on for hours,” said Alan Percy, M.D., professor of neurology in the Department of Pediatrics, medical director of the UAB Civitan International Research Center and a leading Rett syndrome expert. “Patients often end up swallowing large amounts of air, which can have a very detrimental effect on nutrition, a major issue for Rett patients.”

The study, to be held in four sites in the United States and several international locations, is looking to enroll patients with Rett syndrome who are 13 years and older, have a body weight of at least 55 pounds and experience multiple episodes of breath holding while awake during the day.

Percy says UAB is looking to enroll 10-15 patients locally. Participants will be followed for one year.

“Breath holding can be quite disruptive in younger Rett patients, although it usually subsides in early adulthood,” Percy said. “We currently do not have an effective medication that addresses breath holding. This is the first multisite trial of a potential therapy.”

While its mechanism of action remains unclear, Percy says sarizotan may help prevent breath holding by activating serotonin 1a receptors in the brain stem.

“While this is certainly not curative for Rett syndrome, it could be disease modifying,” Percy said. “This has the potential to be an important drug, as breath holding can be very disruptive and distressing to the family.”

The National Institutes of Health defines Rett syndrome as a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects girls almost exclusively. It is characterized by normal early growth and development followed by a slowing of development, loss of purposeful use of the hands, distinctive hand movements, slowed brain and head growth, problems with walking, seizures, and intellectual disability.

The study is sponsored by Newron Pharmaceuticals U.S., Inc. Other study sites in the United States are the Altman Clinical and Translation Research Institute, University of California San Diego; Rush Medical University Center, Chicago; and Texas Children’s Hospital, Houston.
Four new NSF grants — three in neuroscience — deepen UAB’s research portfolio, forge collaborations by Jeff Hansen

Alabama now has more EPSCoR Track II grants than any other state following the award of basic science grants meant to stimulate competitive research in regions of the country traditionally less able to compete for such research funds.

Four teams of University of Alabama at Birmingham researchers have been awarded National Science Foundation grants totaling $5.4 million meant to stimulate competitive research in regions of the country that are less able to compete for these research funds.

One research team supported by an NSF grant is in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry, led by a polymer chemist who applies nanotechnology to biological and biomedical challenges. The three other grants will support basic neuroscience studies, one of UAB’s hallmark research strengths.

Lori McMahon, Ph.D., the Jarman F. Lowder Professor of Neuroscience, dean of the UAB Graduate School and director of the UAB Comprehensive Neuroscience Center, highlighted the three neuroscience EPSCoR grants at this fall’s Comprehensive Neuroscience Center retreat, calling them prestigious and competitive.

“UAB neuroscience has never had one NSF grant, and now we have three,” she said. “With the results of these grants, we can increase our funding beyond the National Institutes of Health.”

These four UAB grants, and one additional Alabama-related EPSCoR that supports research teams at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and the University of Mississippi, set a record, says Christopher Lawson, Ph.D., executive director of the Alabama EPSCoR program and a professor in the UAB Department of Physics.

“The state of Alabama now has more of the EPSCoR Track II grants than any other state; no state has ever had five.” 

Only 25 states, two territories and one commonwealth — areas that receive much less NSF funding than the major research universities in the other 25 states — qualify to compete for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research grants, known as EPSCoR. The EPSCoR Track II grants are meant to level the playing fields among have and have-not research states, and applicants must form collaborations with researchers from other EPSCoR states. This means the UAB teams have formed synergistic partnerships and collaborations across the Birmingham campus and with scientists in other states to foster regional research strength. escor graphic

UAB neuroscience teams and their goals

The three neuroscience EPSCoR grants support a study to understand the initiation of epileptic brain seizures; a project to develop a new tool for optogenetics, which is the control of neural cells using light; and an effort to discover a universal rule for the relation between neural activity and increased blood flow in areas of the brain. In all three EPSCoR grants, UAB is a partner institution, and the lead institution is in another EPSCoR state.

“Several institutions reached out to UAB because we are so strong in neuroscience,” McMahon said. “There is a lot of UAB synergy around the three neuroscience EPSCoRs.”

McMahon says all three UAB neuroscience teams will meet regularly to share results and ideas.

Epileptic brain seizures

nsf grants martinFrom left: Roy Martin, Jerzy P. Szaflarski and Timothy Gawne.The current approach for epilepsy surgery at UAB involves two surgeries. The first implants electrodes into a patient’s brain for a two-week period to map the location of the seizure onset zone in the brain. The second operation cuts out the onset zone.

“Our goal is to one day not need invasive monitoring,” said Sandipan Pati, M.D., assistant professor of neurology. “That would mean one surgery instead of two, and the patient would not have to stay in the hospital for two weeks.”

The UAB team in the epileptic brain seizure study — headed by Jerzy P. Szaflarski, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neurology — is developing and validating software for noninvasive brain mapping that will allow caregivers to locate that part of the brain that initiates seizures and locate those parts that function in memory.

“We will provide a road map for the surgeons — where to operate to remove the thumb-sized part of the brain that kicks off seizures, and what parts of the brain to avoid,” Pati said, “so that patients will have no added memory deficits after the operation.”

The investigators will use magnetoencephalography, or MEG, to map electrical activity using the magnetic fields produced by natural electrical currents produced by the brain. The magnetic forces are measured from the outside of the brain as the top of a patient’s head fits into the MEG device, which looks something like a beauty-shop hair drier on steroids. Pati says the UAB team has preliminary data about using the MEG to identify the onset zone by its hyper-excitation, without the need to wait for seizures.

Other UAB investigators in the study are Roy Martin, Ph.D., associate professor of neurology, and Timothy Gawne, Ph.D., associate professor of vision sciences. The lead institution for the study is Louisiana Tech University, and the University of Arkansas is also a partner in the study.

New tool for optogenetics

nsf grants mcmahonFrom left: Mark Bolding, Lynn Dobrunz, Lori McMahon and Gary Gray.Optogenetics uses light to control cells in living tissue, after light-sensitive ion channels are introduced into the cells by gene manipulation. Then light is sent into the brain on a fiber-optic cable inserted into the brain, to make neurons fire or to stop neurons from firing. This control helps researchers learn how the brain is wired and how it works.

The optogenetics project will create technology to control the light-sensitive ion channels using low-power X-rays, thus allowing control of neurons from outside the body.

McMahon is the UAB co-principal investigator in this project, which is led by Clemson University. Other partner institutions are the University of New Mexico and the University of South Carolina. The Clemson researchers will develop special nanoparticles that emit light in response to X-rays, the New Mexico researchers will genetically modify the light-sensitive ion channels so that they can bind the nanoparticles, and the UAB researchers will test how those nanoparticles disperse in the brain and how these particles, when activated by X-rays, can turn on and off brain circuits.

“We are about to do the first validation,” McMahon said. “The entire four years of the grant is developing the tool. Then we can use it in animal disease models for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and anxiety. The goal is to understand brain circuitry using preclinical models of neurologic disease and models of neuropsychiatric illness.”

Other UAB investigators are Lynn Dobrunz, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology; Mark Bolding, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Division of Advanced Medical Imaging Research, Department of Radiology, and director of the Civitan International Neuroimaging Facility; Kazutoshi Nakazawa, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurobiology; and Gary Gray, Ph.D., professor of chemistry.

Neural activity and blood flow

nsf grants lubinJacques Wadiche, Farah Lubin and Paul Gamlin.It has long been known that neural activity is associated with increased blood flow, as the neurons need more oxygen and nutrients. In imaging with functional magnetic resonance, or fMRI, increased blood flow can be seen in parts of the brain as the subjects perform a task. But the resolution — both spatially and in time — is not sharp, and fMRI remains an indirect measure of neural activity.

The UAB team will use a very expensive infrared laser and microscope to peer beneath the surface of living brains to look at individual neurons and capillary beds.

“We will image cells in the brain using two-photon imaging,” said Paul Gamlin, Ph.D., professor of ophthalmology and UAB’s co-principal investigator in the neural activity and blood flow effort. “While monitoring neural activity, we will also monitor what the capillary bed is doing.”

“The question is, if we stimulate the cells, how precise is the blood flow change?”

Capillaries are the smallest blood vessels, bringing oxygen and nutrients to cells and taking away carbon dioxide and waste products. Networks of capillaries form tiny beds of vessels, and each capillary has a precapillary sphincter, a ring of muscle that can control blood flow, akin to crimping a garden hose to lessen water flow. It has been estimated that the human brain has 400 miles of capillaries, and that nearly every neuron in the brain has its own capillary.

Gamlin and others on the UAB team — Lawrence Sincich, Ph.D., assistant professor of vision sciences; Farah Lubin, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology; Jacques Wadiche, Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology; and Yuhua Zhang, Ph.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology — can stimulate neurons nonphysiologically and see how the capillaries change. They will also look at physiological stimulation by shining light on one, two or three retinal cells in the eye and watching how neurons and capillaries in the visual cortex of the brain respond.

The lead institution in this project is the Medical University of South Carolina, and Furman University and the University of South Carolina, Beaufort, are partners in the study.

Detecting pollutants in Gulf Coast marine ecosystems

eugenia kharlampieva 2016Eugenia KharlampievaThe Gulf Coast aquatic ecosystem hosts important fishing grounds and aquaculture, which co-exist with trading ports, off-shore oil wells and production industries. The fourth UAB EPSCoR is aimed at monitoring the water quality of this ecosystem, under the lead of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Ten researchers at six institutions in Alabama and Mississippi will develop advanced polymer-based, selective sensing technologies to detect and analyze pollutants.

The UAB investigator is Eugenia Kharlampieva, Ph.D., associate professor of polymer chemistry. She will design and synthesize three-dimensional porous hydrogel microparticles. These particles will be filled with sensing molecules created by Marco Bonizzoni, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. These hydrogels will eventually become devices that can sense polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in sea water.

“Sea water is a challenge because it is very rich in ions from all that salt,” Kharlampieva said. “It is hard to find the right technology that will work in that environment.”

Other researchers in the grant are developing sensitive and selective sensors to measure levels of carbon dioxide, nitrates and phosphates. The goal is new classes of seawater quality sensors that are faster, simpler and less costly. Other partner institutions in the grant are the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University and Jackson State University.