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The Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis Puts its Neuroscience Tools to Good Use

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These days it seems that neuroscience and its fancy new tools are in the news — a lot. Coming off the heels of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative announcement in April 2013, this attention is entirely unsurprising and timely. From the extensively covered optogenetics, to the controversial and non-invasive method of transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS), to the science-fiction like promise of CLARITY (a 3D visualization technique of intact rodent brains), it seems that neuroscientists are unstoppable. With these technologies in hand, the relevant question has become: how do we most effectively implement these tools to answer the most pressing research questions of our society today? 


Dr. Cameron Carter, Director of the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and UC Davis Imaging Research Center addressed some of these issues in a public lecture, this past Monday, at the UC Davis Health Center in Sacramento entitled Brain Research: New Discoveries and Breakthroughs at UC Davis. During the first half of the presentation, Dr. Carter reminded the audience that with 100 billion neurons and trillions of connections, constantly changing throughout a lifetime, what’s surprising isn’t that things can go wrong. What’s surprising is that the brain ever succeeds in coordinating as mundane a task as picking up a pencil in the first place. In fact, it’s at this intersection — of mental disease and mental health — that we, as researchers, are able to glean the most insight about the limits of our nervous system. This understanding is key to the development of novel, effective, deliverable therapies and early interventions. Furthermore, these therapies and evidence-based strategies can only have a real impact if they are appropriately disseminated to the community and mental health workers at the outset.

In October 2014, with the support of Former Senator Darrell Steinberg, author of Prop 63 (aka as the “California Mental Health Services Act), the partnership of UCLA, and the tangible support of Dean Frederick J. Meyers, The Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis was launched:

In the past few months, the center put out a call for pilot research grant applications (awards were $200,000 each, totaling 4.3 million dollars). 65 applications were received and peer reviewed. 16 of them were funded. UCD Neuroscience Graduate students: you will recognize some of these names and faces. The awards funded questions and methods that spanned quite the range. The projects included: the use of sensitive calcium sensors (Drs. Karen Zito and Lin Tian), non-invasive tDCS (Dr. Charan Ranganath), electrical brain stimulation to enhance learning and memory (Dr. Evan Antzoulatos), the novel combination of ultrasound and fMRI (Dr. Katherine Ferrara), and the saavy use of smartphone apps to collect mental health data on patients (Dr. Tara Niendam).

In a sense, these funded projects are a confirmation that enthusiasm for the novel development and application of neuroscience tools exists today. Yet, this initiative sets itself apart in its practical application of basic science to the real mental health problems we face as a society today.

The atmosphere at yesterday’s lecture was primarily one of hope. This stands in contrast to the attitude in clinical brain research today, Dr. Carter explained to the audience. For the past few years, there has been a discrepancy between how much we’ve learned in neuroscience and how difficult it is to develop drug therapies despite this knowledge. So, what gives?

There’s still hope, Dr. Carter urges. The more we learn about how brain circuits function, he explains, the more well-poised we are to develop therapies for when those circuits malfunction. “Let’s use this knowledge to fix the broken circuits,” said Dr. Carter. In essence, this is the exhortation shared by the BRAIN Initiative, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

From this graduate student’s perspective, this can only be done effectively if policy makers, basic researchers and affected individuals in the community continue to communicate.

For those interested in participating more directly in this conversation and learning more about the center’s iniatives, mark your calendars for the “Early Psychosis Symposium” planned for September 17th, 2015 at the UC Davis Health System, Sacramento Education Building, 4610 X Street Lecture Hall 2222.  

NEWSLETTER: “Washington Wire”
Contributing Writer of Science & Health Section 
(Issue II Publications from March 2010 – 2012) 
Click Here for Access to the Archives

A few samples:

The Sex Matters Several studies have already demonstrated that sex affects methylation patterning among healthy and diseased individuals.  Researchers investigated the role that sex plays in methylation patterning on a genome-wide locus-to-locus level. Factors other than sex, including: age, cancer, smoking and drinking habits, influence methylation patterning, and the researchers proposed a new type of analysis that parses out potential confounding effects in the study of sex-specific influences on the genome. 

The Role of Cytokines in Childhood ADHD A new study published in the journal Behavior and Brain Functions investigated the relationship between cytokines and children with an ADHD diagnosis. In total, there were 35 ADHD children included in the study: 14 on medication and 21 controls. The scientists looked at the relationship between serum levels of 8 cytokines and 5 different tryptophan metabolites with various cognitive behavioral measures that rated such behaviors as inattention, anxiety and opposition. The researchers concluded that there is a quantitative relationship between serum levels of these markers and particular behaviors. For example, pro-inflammatory cytokines correlated more closely with cognitive control while anti-inflammatory cytokines were associated more closely with motor control. Ideally, future studies will include a longitudinal component in order to investigate the stability of these cytokines throughout adulthood.  

Cautionary Tales in 21st Century Medicine Medicine in the 21st century has advanced in great strides. Technological improvements and an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the basic sciences are allowing us, as a society, to develop creative solutions to the pressing health care problems of today. However, these advances do not preclude us from occasionally blundering. Here’s a look at what Forbes magazine named the “Top 10 Medical Flops of the Decade.”   

Theory or Data? Both please. The traditional model of the scientific method begins first with a hypothesis, which is then tested by experimentation.  In such a model, the collection of data is usually done in the interest of testing a hypothesis.  However, there are times when data is collected and is not held within a theoretical framework.  Dennis Overbye of the New York Times writes about the neutrino controversy as an example of when such “data before theory” becomes a problem.  

MIT Scientists Maximize Solar Energy Solar power is generally regarded as an environmentally friendly energy source, albeit an expensive one.  In order to minimize costs, many have focused on the production costs of photovoltaic cells – the cells that make up a solar panel.  However, until recently, no one considered simply rearranging the solar panels themselves.  Scientists at MIT have reconfigured the panels in cubes or extending towers in order to maximize the amount of solar energy that can be harvested. Some of the constructed structures have more than doubled the amount of solar power! 

Epigenome Sequenced European scientist Manel Esteller – the director of the Epigenetics and Cancer Biology Program at Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) – has recently mapped the entire epigenome. The study of epigenetics is central to cancer biology research and indeed to various disciplines interested in investigating the underlying biology of various developmental diseases. Thus, this is an important step forward in further elucidating the genetic underpinnings of cancer and other potentially debilitating diseases.  

Climate Skeptics Are Not Scientifically Illiterate Some topics are known to be polarizing and climate change is definitely one such topic. For years now, scientists have been trying to convince policy makers that climate change is a real phenomenon. The resistance against accepting its existence has mostly been attributed to scientific illiteracy. The thought has been: if only people understood this data, they would believe in climate change. Yet a recent article published in Nature Climate Change reports that, in fact, individuals who are “climate skeptics” are not scientifically illiterate. Their viewpoint is driven by their interdependent versus individualistic perspectives.  

Grand-parental Age and Autism Parental age has been implicated in an increased risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), but few studies have investigated the contribution of grand-parental age effects. A group of researchers at the University of Bristol conducted a study aimed at investigating the relationship between grand-parental age and ASD. The authors were surprised to find that while there were clear parental effects, these were secondary to grand-parental (and in particular grand-maternal) age effects. The authors acknowledge that further studies are needed in order to clarify the mechanism(s) behind this potential grand-parental effect. However, these findings improve our understanding of the various factors that contribute to the etiology of ASD.  

Do Males or Females Have Better Immunity? It Depends on the Cost. 

Several studies have shown that when it comes to resisting and fighting off viral infections, males fare worse than females. Then again, other studies have shown that in certain systems, females fare worse than males. Authors Olivier Restif and William Amos of the UK explain in their recent paper, “The Evolution of Sex-Specific Immune Defenses” that a wide range of ecological and genetic constraints must be taken into account; only then can the true cost of resistance and the benefit of immunity be assessed by the organism. The authors explained that a model effective at predicting which sex will mount a stronger immune response must account for numerous factors in addition to the environment. For example, the phenotypes of peers, as well as the pathogen dynamics and genotypes, must be included into a predictive model. Thus, this new model is unique in its ability to account for all of these variables.