Grow Your Research Idea with Incubator or Germinator Seed Funding

Research Incubator and Germinator Awards.

Deadline: June 11, 2021 (letters of intent); August 20, 2021 (full application)

The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) supports two seed-grant funding programs. These high-risk/high-return funding mechanisms provide funding for research that is exploratory and therefore not yet ready for external funding.

Research Incubator Awards

Incubator Awards, up to $100,000, are for teams of faculty representing at least two departments or areas of research. See more information.

Research Germinator Awards

Germinator Awards, up to $25,000, are for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, residents or faculty. See more information.

Important Dates for Both Award Mechanisms

  • Letters of intent: Due by 5:00 p.m., Friday, June 11, 2021
  • Full application: Due by 5:00 p.m., Friday, August 20, 2021
  • Award notifications: Anticipated in November 2021
  • Funding start: January 1, 2022

Learn More and Apply

See the DIBS website for full information.

Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Announces Seed Grants for Five Interdisciplinary Teams

2020 Research Incubator or Germinator Awards.

Five interdisciplinary teams have received 2020 Research Incubator or Germinator Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). The awards are designed to promote high-risk/high-return neuroscience research that is collaborative, crosses disciplinary boundaries, and is likely to draw external funding.

The research teams will address health issues affecting millions, including spinal-cord injuries, the relationship between tobacco use and chronic pain, how changes in the gut are communicated to the brain, the use of novel technologies to understand the neural mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease, and the effects of toxins on the developing brain. They represent multiple departments and schools, including the Duke School of Medicine, the Pratt School of Engineering, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Three of the Incubator Award teams will receive $75,000; a fourth will be funded at $100,000 through the generosity of the DIBS External Advisory Board. Previous awards have brought in significant external grants after the initial seed funding, resulting in a seven-to-one return on investment over the past six years. The follow-on grants typically come from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and private foundations. The fifth is a Germinator Award of $25,000 that will support a study led by a graduate student with support of faculty mentors.

“We are pleased to be able to make these awards and highlight the value of interdisciplinary research,” said DIBS Director Geraldine Dawson, PhD, in announcing the award recipients. Even during these financially challenging times, Dawson noted, “we remain strongly committed to supporting collaboration and innovation in the neurosciences at Duke. We were especially pleased to see the breadth of departments and schools that received funding.”

Dawson also expressed gratitude for the generosity of the External Advisory Board. “Our board members are very enthusiastic and generous supporters of the Incubator program, and we thank them for making a fourth Incubator Award possible for 2020-2021.”

Following is information about all award recipients and their research projects:

DIBS External Advisory Board Incubator Recipient, $100,000

Timothy Dunn, PhD

Neurosurgery, School of Medicine

Michael Tadross, PhD, Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering


 Parkinson’s Advance with DART and DANNCE

Parkinson’s disease is caused by a degeneration of brain areas controlling movement. However, while we know which area of the brain degenerates, we have not yet understood exactly how this degeneration leads to movement defects such as tremors and slowing/stiffening of body motions. If we understand this mechanism in animal models, we will be one step closer to next-generation therapies that mitigate the disease without debilitating side effects and without a loss in effectiveness over time. Two fundamental obstacles to this goal have been (1) that relevant brain areas contain intermingled neuron types that have been hard to individually manipulate with clinical drugs, and (2) movement impairments are complex and diverse, so we have not yet been able to measure these defects quantitatively. Our collaboration unites two different technologies, creating a novel framework for understanding Parkinson’s. The first, Drugs Acutely Restricted by Tethering (DART), enables delivery of any clinical drug to a specific brain-cell type in an animal. DART has already shown a novel causal link between the neurotransmitter glutamate signaling onto one neuron type and Parkinson’s disease. The second technology, 3-Dimensional Aligned Neural Network for Computational Ethology (DANNCE), uses deep learning to track the fine details of body movement in 3D. This technology allows us to more precisely identify the movement defects in Parkinson’s. With DIBS Incubator funding, we will pair DART with DANNCE to discover new relationships between neurons and movement defects and identify potential therapies.

Incubator Recipients, $75,000 each

Timothy Faw, PhD

Orthopaedic Surgery, School of Medicine

Daniel T. Laskowitz, MD, MHS, Neurology;

Muhammad Abd-El-Barr, MD, PhD, Neurosurgery;

Haichen Wang, MD, Neurology, School of Medicine

 A Novel Apolipoprotein E (apoE)-mimetic Pentapeptide to Improve Recovery in Acute Spinal Cord Injury

 Novel therapies that improve mobility after spinal cord injury (SCI) could lead to better quality of life and save billions of dollars in lifetime costs. Targeting the early inflammatory response to SCI is appealing, as it is the main cause of tissue damage after the initial injury. Apolipoprotein E (apoE) plays a critical role in mediating this neuroinflammation after nervous system damage. However, systemic delivery of the intact protein is ineffective as a therapeutic because it fails to cross the blood-brain barrier. As such, we have developed small, apoE-based peptides that mimic the function of the intact protein, cross the blood-brain barrier, and have few side effects. Here, we will test the hypothesis that early treatment with an apoE-mimetic peptide, CN-105, reduces inflammation, tissue damage, and improves recovery in a clinically relevant animal model of SCI. This peptide, developed at Duke, has received Investigational New Drug and Orphan Drug designations from the Food and Drug Administration, which will facilitate translation to early clinical trials.

Maggie Sweitzer, PhD

Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine

Katherine Martucci, PhD, Anesthesiology; F. Joseph McClernon, PhD, and Alison Adcock, MD, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine

Neural Mechanisms Underlying Tobacco Withdrawal-Induced Hyperalgesia

Chronic pain and cigarette smoking influence one another, in that smokers are more likely to have pain, and individuals with pain are more likely to smoke. People with chronic pain have more difficulty quitting smoking, in part, because temporarily going without smoking (early withdrawal) leads to increased pain sensitivity. The goal of this study is to examine the brain’s response to heat pain stimuli among smokers in early withdrawal, to better understand the reasons for increased pain sensitivity. Daily smokers will complete two fMRI sessions, one after smoking as usual, and one after not smoking for 24 hours. During the scans, participants will experience heat pain delivered through an electrode and will provide ratings of their pain response. It is expected that participants’ ratings of pain in response to heat stimuli will be greater during the withdrawal session, and that this increased pain will be associated with greater activation throughout a network of brain regions involved in perceiving pain. This approach will allow us to determine which brain regions are most involved in pain sensitivity during withdrawal, which will help to identify targets for treatment. In addition, these processes might differ among smokers who also have chronic pain, compared to those who do not. As such, half of the participants will be those diagnosed with chronic pain, while the other half will be pain-free. We anticipate that the effects of smoking withdrawal on pain-related brain function will be more pronounced among those with chronic pain.

Eva Naumann, PhD

Neurobiology, School of Medicine

John F. Rawls, PhD, Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, School of Medicine

Gut-to-Brain Sensory Conduction in Zebrafish

Debilitating neuropsychiatric conditions such as autism, obesity, depression, and epilepsy can all be improved by changing diet and microbiome in the gut. Yet, it is largely unknown how these changes originating in the gut are communicated to the brain. Recent studies have revealed that gut-to-brain communication begins with a special cell type in the lining of the gut called enteroendocrine cells (EECs). For decades we have known there are different types of EECs that sense and respond to chemicals from diet and microbes by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters to influence the brain and other organs. Recent studies at Duke have revealed that some EECs also directly contact the vagal nerve, which serves as a key entry point to the rest of the brain. What we don’t know is whether EECs are able to communicate with deeper regions of the brain in general, and whether distinct chemical stimuli and distinct EEC types in the gut evoke distinct patterns of brain activity. Here, we propose to address these gaps in knowledge by combining the skills of a gut specialist, Dr. Rawls, and an expert in brain imaging and anatomy, Dr. Naumann, to establish a powerful vertebrate system to examine this gut-to-brain communication.

Germinator Recipient

Carina Fowler, Graduate Student, Psychology & Neuroscience, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

Michael Gaffrey, PhD, and Aaron Reuben, PhD, Psychology & Neuroscience

Heather Stapleton, PhD, Environmental Ethics and Sustainable Environmental Management, Nicholas School of the Environment

Neural Correlates of Multi-toxicant Exposure in Preschool-age Children

Animal studies show that certain chemicals, called toxicants, may change our brains. Exposure to flame retardants, pesticides, air pollutants, and second-hand smoke appears to harm parts of the brain involved in learning, memory, coordination, emotion regulation, and long-term planning. Children are particularly vulnerable to these types of changes because they have greater exposure and fewer biological defenses than adults. This is particularly problematic because early childhood is a period of major neurobiological growth, and changes that occur during this critical developmental period can become permanent. However, many of the toxicants that could harm children’s brain development have yet to be studied in children directly, and no research to date has tested whether exposure to multiple toxicants produces greater harm—even though children are routinely exposed to multiple toxicants at once. Our study will help us understand the association between children’s brain structure and (1) exposure to individual toxicants and (2) combined exposure to multiple different toxicants at once. We believe that this work can help parents, pediatricians, and policymakers protect the developing brain.


By Kathy Neal; originally posted on the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences website

Duke Faculty Share Neuroscience Perspectives on COVID-19 Challenges

DIBS faculty.
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Geraldine Dawson, Greg Samanez-Larkin, Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, Kevin LaBar, Brian Hare

COVID-19 is bringing new scientific, behavioral, and cultural challenges every day. The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) Faculty Network consists of 200 interdisciplinary neuroscience researchers from across Duke’s schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Law as well as the Pratt School of Engineering, Fuqua School of Business, and Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. Their research can help us understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is influencing people’s decision-making, behavior, choices, and physical and mental health. The following faculty interviews offer an interdisciplinary neuroscience perspective on some of the most challenging issues raised by the current pandemic.

Understanding ethics and morality during the pandemic

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Distinguished Professor of Practical Ethics, Kenan Institute for Ethics

Much of my work is on the psychology and neuroscience of moral judgments as well as the implications of neuroscience of decision-making for moral responsibility. I also run labs on moral artificial intelligence and on political polarization, and I work on psychiatric conditions and law. I have no discipline, but my research is nearly always about morality. The moral issues raised by COVID-19 are not only numerous but complex and subtle, so we should not be completely certain that our own moral judgments are correct. Our work has shown that, instead of imposing our moral views on others, it’s important to gather input from stakeholders, which includes everyone. Read more

Understanding the unique ways the pandemic affects individuals with autism and how to help

Geraldine Dawson, William Cleland Distinguished Professor, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; Director, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences; Director, Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development

My research has focused on developing methods for early detection and treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and understanding brain function and development in individuals with autism. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing unique challenges for people with developmental disabilities, such as those on the autism spectrum. We offer some suggestions and resources. Read more

Why older and younger people make different decisions about how to respond to the pandemic

Greg Samanez-Larkin, Associate Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

Our research is focused on understanding how people feel and think at different stages of adulthood. Most of our studies are trying to figure out what motivates people to make wise choices as they age – from young adulthood to old age. There has been a lot of reporting and anecdotal social media complaining about teenagers and aging parents not taking this pandemic seriously – ignoring advice to social distance. We explore what the data tell us about age and decision-making. Read more

How the pandemic affects those already dealing with incarceration and mental health issues

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, Associate Professor of the Practice, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

I do community-engaged research, working with Durham’s Stepping Up Initiative, Crisis Intervention Team, and Criminal Justice Resource Center. These groups are particularly interested in improving outcomes for people in Durham who are involved with the criminal justice system and also have mental health issues. My team of collaborators and students has been analyzing data describing incarcerations and recidivism in this population. We are also beginning to examine the interactions of this population with Duke Health System, to explore ways that we can improve coordination. Read more

Why anxiety and stress related to COVID-19 affect cognitive functions

Kevin LaBar, Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

My lab’s research focuses on how emotions bias cognitive processes in the human brain. We assay emotional reactions using behavioral reports and physiological responses, and we investigate how emotions impact brain function using neuroimaging methods in healthy individuals and in those with psychiatric disorders. Read more

How dogs can help us adjust to social distancing and other COVID-19 challenges

Brian Hare, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences; Director, Duke Canine Cognition Center

I want to understand how different types of cognition evolve, including in our own species.  Dogs have provided a powerful way to test ideas about how selection can shape psychology. We have applied what we learned to help working dogs. Like people, we have found individual dogs have different cognitive strengths that give them their unique personalities. Currently we are raising service dog puppies to examine how different socialization experiences might enhance their cognitive abilities. Our goal is to increase the chances they will grow up to be successful working dogs. Read more

Originally posted on the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences website

Seed Funding from Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Provides 7-to-1 Return on Investment​

Researchers Calakos & Yin.
Researchers Calakos and Yin

Duke researchers Nicole Calakos and Henry Yin are both interested in how the brain converts goal-directed, voluntary actions such as buttoning your shirt into involuntary habits you don’t have to think about. But they work in different departments in separate schools at Duke (Neurology, School of Medicine, and Psychology & Neuroscience, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, respectively), which can make collaboration a challenge.

In 2010, they received a $100,000 Research Incubator Award from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS), allowing them to work together on their interdisciplinary ideas and see where they might lead. Research Incubator Awards, given annually, are designed to facilitate cross-campus collaboration. Today, their labs are part of a major four-lab effort – including the Michael Tadross lab in Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering, and the Nicolas Brunel lab in Neurobiology, School of Medicine ­– to study brain plasticity in habit formation, with federal funding from the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative. The initial DIBS funding helped lay the foundation for winning a competitive $5.1 million BRAIN Initiative grant.

Generating 7:1 Return on Investment

For every dollar spent on the Research Incubator Awards, seven dollars are returned to Duke through external funding and grants such as the BRAIN Initiative, other National Institutes of Health agencies, and the National Science Foundation. The program is supported financially by the university and the School of Medicine, and through philanthropic gifts from the DIBS External Advisory Board.

“These high-risk, high-reward projects encourage new interdisciplinary collaborations and allow researchers at Duke to take risks and pursue cutting-edge science,” said DIBS Director Geraldine Dawson, PhD,  who also leads the Duke Center on Autism and Brain Development.

“DIBS invests in early-stage research projects to promote testing of new ideas, increase the likelihood of obtaining external research funding, and help train the next generation  of research scientists.” The BRAIN Initiative seeks to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain by taking advantage of the latest technological advances. It is supported by federal agencies, technology firms, academic institutions, scientists, and other contributors to the neuroscience field. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also supports the BRAIN Initiative through a number of programs.

Providing Unique Opportunities to Collaborate

Calakos and Yin are both members of the growing DIBS Faculty Network, composed of nearly 200 faculty members in dozens of departments across Duke. Calakos described how she and Yin began their Incubator collaboration: “Henry joined the faculty at Duke just a couple of years after I did,” she said. “Our labs shared an interest in understanding the relationship between plasticity (adaptability) in basal ganglia circuitry and how it shapes behavior, so it was natural that we were looking for opportunities to work together. Our 2010 DIBS Incubator Award was the first opportunity for our labs to do this.”

The Calakos Lab had just created a mouse model for a movement disorder thought to arise from abnormal basal ganglia activity. The Yin Lab “had the expertise to study learning behaviors that rely on basal ganglia plasticity, so together we set out to understand how a human genetic variant associated with movement disorder influenced motor learning and habit formation,” Calakos added. Other DIBS Faculty Network Members have had similar success attracting grants from the BRAIN Initiative based on collaborative work that grew out of their Incubator awards.

For example, Marc Sommer (Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering) has long focused on optimizing parameters for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which uses magnetic fields as a non-invasive way to affect neurons for treating disorders such as depression. Beginning with an Incubator Award, Sommer worked with Tobias Egner (Psychology & Neuroscience), Warren Grill (Biomedical Engineering), and Michael Platt (formerly of Neurobiology) to understand and enhance the use of TMS in animals performing cognitive tasks.

Sommer’s BRAIN Initiative grant, “Impact of Timing, Targeting, and Brain State on rTMS of Human and Non-human Primates,” builds on his team’s Incubator Award research through a novel collaboration with Roberto Cabeza (Psychology & Neuroscience), Simon Davis (Neurology), and Greg Appelbaum and Angel Peterchev (both in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences). The new study “will yield a multi-scale data set that links results from non-human primates to humans through experiments that should generalize well to the study of other cerebral cortical circuits,” Sommer said. “The results will help to advance rTMS from a method that relies on trial-and-error testing toward one that is founded on clear biological principles.”

Supporting the Next Generation of Neuroscientists

Peterchev was also awarded a BRAIN Initiative grant supported by DARPA: MOANA: Magnetic, Optical, and Acoustic Neural Access Device, for High-bandwidth, Non-surgical Brain Computer Interfaces,” a project that grew out of another DIBS Incubator Award involving colleagues from across the university and the medical center. It’s not just faculty who are involved in the projects. Peterchev noted that Stefan Goetz (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences), the primary investigator on the DARPA grant, was a postdoctoral associate funded by the Incubator Award. “This is another example of how this seed funding program contributes to the important work of educating and training the next generation of neuroscience talent,” Dawson said.

Dawson expects to see more BRAIN Initiative grants go to DIBS Faculty Network Members, especially those leading Incubator Awards “This is a natural match,” she said. “Seed funding is crucial to ensure that Duke neuroscientists are part of the talented group of researchers who are funded through the BRAIN Initiative and leading the way in unraveling the complexities of the brain.”

Through December 2019, Duke faculty have received 19 BRAIN Initiative grants. Five of those grants received their start through the DIBS Research Incubator Awards. For more information, please see the Initiative’s Funded Awards website,

Letters of intent for DIBS Research Incubator and Germinator Awards are due May 1, 5 p.m., EDT. More information, click HERE.

Originally posted on the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences website

Incubator and Germinator Seed Grants Available from Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

DIBS logo.

Deadline: May 1, 2020, for letters of intent; August 1, 2020, for full proposals

The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) supports two seed grant funding programs. These high-risk/high-return funding mechanisms provide funding for research that is exploratory and therefore not yet ready for external funding.

  • Research Incubator Awards, of up to $100,000, require a minimum of two faculty from different disciplines.
  • Research Germinator Awards support smaller, targeted requests up to $25,000, and are open to faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students.

Research Incubator Awards

DIBS Research Incubator Awards aim to promote research that is high-risk/high-return, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and related to the brain sciences. This year, DIBS will fund at least five projects of up to $100,000 for a period of one year. Collaborative teams should be comprised of faculty leaders who represent at least two different departments at Duke. Projects that include investigators from multiple schools within the University (e.g., School of Medicine, Arts & Sciences, Pratt School of Engineering, etc.) are encouraged.

Criteria for awards will be: innovation; interdisciplinarity; significance to the brain sciences; quality of the approach; feasibility; and potential to lead to external funding.

Collaborators will also be evaluated for balanced expertise and productive contribution to the team.

Proposals should clearly and concisely describe a project whose scope is matched to the duration (1 year) and amount of funding. The proposal, budget, budget justification, and biosketches for all faculty collaborators should be submitted as a single PDF.

One-page Letters of Intent for 2020 are due by 5 p.m. ET, May 1, 2020. To submit a Letter of Intent and other required information, please use this link: Incubator Awards Letter of Intent Form.

Full Proposals for 2020 are due by 5 p.m. ET, August 1, 2020, via email to, and should clearly and concisely describe a project whose scope is matched to the duration and amount of funding. Please download the Incubator Awards Program 2019-2020 Application Form.

Research Germinator Awards

DIBS Research Germinator Awards are designed to support smaller, targeted requests for training, pilot data, non-faculty salary, and/or equipment that would facilitate new research and lead to new external funding. Projects are awarded up to a maximum of $25,000 (non-renewable). A letter of intent and brief application are required. These awards are open to Duke graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty.

The application should describe how this targeted investment would catalyze a new program of research or collaboration and/or enhance chances of obtaining external funding. DIBS can assist in identifying appropriate funding sources. It should also describe clearly and concisely how a project’s scope matches its duration (up to 1 year) and requested funding. If a grant or other award proposal has been submitted to another funding source (e.g., NIH, NSF, foundation) on a similar topic, the rationale for DIBS funding should be clearly articulated. Note: Unlike the DIBS Incubator Awards, Germinator Awards may go to single investigators.

One-page Letters of Intent for 2020 are due by 5 p.m. ET, May 1, 2020. To submit a Letter of Intent and other required information, please use this link: Germinator Awards Letter of Intent Form.

Full Proposals for 2020 are due by 5 p.m. ET, August 1, 2020, via email to, and should clearly and concisely describe a project whose scope is matched to the duration and amount of funding. Please download the Germinator Awards Program 2019-2020 Application Form.

Learn more: Research Awards Schedule and Application Forms

Sure Signs of Addiction: More Than Just a Feeling

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta.

Whether it’s finishing this season’s fifth box of Girl Scout cookies or binge-watching a Netflix show, it can be easy for the average, healthy person to think they’re developing a problem.

“I can’t believe I just finished another sleeve of Thin Mints, I’m so addicted,” or “Wow, I’m so addicted to Dexter—just finished the seventh season this weekend!” are common phrases overheard in coffee shops and grocery store lines.

However, when addiction researcher Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, PhD, an associate professor of the practice in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, hears these phrases, she knows that these people, more often than not, are not truly addicted. Addiction has a clinical definition: when a person continues to do something despite experiencing major negative consequences. And, she says, this behavior is linked to changes to the brain.

Nicole standing outside.

Schramm-Sapyta’s early laboratory research focused on addiction’s effects on a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, a bundle of nerve cells also known as the brain’s pleasure center. Satisfying experiences—whether in the form of an addictive drug, monetary reward, sexual encounter, or satisfying meal—trigger the release of a type of “feel good” neurotransmitter called dopamine in this pleasure center. But addictive drugs—substances like alcohol, nicotine and opiates—pack an extra-powerful punch, and the brain is flooded and then overwhelmed by large amounts of dopamine. Over time, the brain will counteract this flooding by down-regulating, or removing, the dopamine receptors.

“When someone repeatedly takes an addictive drug, they lose dopamine receptors, and eventually become anhedonic, or unable to feel pleasure,” said Schramm-Sapyta. “The person is no longer able to feel joy from normal life. So, getting a good grade, seeing an old friend, or having a delicious meal doesn’t feel good. And the only way to feel ‘normal’ again is to get high on the drug. When someone progresses to this stage of addiction, they’re not even enjoying the drug anymore. They’re just taking it to feel normal again.”

Other brain regions add to the process. The brain’s “prioritizer,” the prefrontal cortex, decides that getting more of the drug is a top priority, and the amygdala ramps up negative emotions when it doesn’t get it. Along with the nucleus accumbens, these regions work together to change a person’s response to a drug from simply “liking” it to “wanting” it to “needing” it.

The process of moving from enjoyment to needing the drug can take anywhere from a few months to a few years depending on the person’s susceptibility to addiction, according to Schramm-Sapyta. People who already have underlying mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD, are most vulnerable. Women’s brains also tend to become addicted more quickly than men, though more research is needed to better understand this difference.

“We think of addiction as being a biopsychosocial condition,” she said. “When clinicians treat the biological aspect of the condition—usually with medication—they must also remember to look at the psychosocial aspects of a person’s life that led to the addiction in order to truly guide that person towards recovery.”

Addiction in the Lab

Growing up in North Carolina, Schramm-Sapyta began studying chemical engineering as an undergraduate at NC State University but switched her major to biochemistry, following the advice of a family friend, a pharmacologist at Wake Forest University. She did not regret it.

She went on to earn a PhD in pharmacology at Vanderbilt University, and then accepted a postdoctoral associate position in the lab of Danny Winder, PhD, the Director of the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research.

There, she conducted experiments to determine which region of the brain was activated when mice learned how to push a lever and self-administer cocaine. She also began to study addiction and adolescence.

“In the Winder lab, we noticed that it was much easier to observe electrophysiological changes in the nucleus accumbens of adolescent mouse brains than adult mouse brains, which led us to think that might be a mechanism by which adolescents are more vulnerable to addiction than adults,” Schramm-Sapyta said.

After looking deeper, the team came to realize that not all adolescents are more vulnerable to addiction. By studying behavior in mice and rats, the researchers realized that on average, adolescents find drugs of abuse more rewarding and less aversive than adults, but that only some adolescents are more likely to self-administer, or voluntarily take drugs of abuse. The more vulnerable adolescents were more novelty-seeking, less susceptible to the aversive effects of the drugs, and had differences in anxiety levels. For cocaine, less-anxious animals tended to take more, but for alcohol, evidence suggests that more anxious individuals take more.

“Nicole was the first postdoc that I hired in my lab, and I could not have been more fortunate to recruit her,” Winder said. “In those early days of a new lab, having great people around you is key, and Nicole’s enthusiasm, professionalism and intellect all contributed to the foundation of a positive working environment going forward. She did a lot of exciting research in the lab during that time that still influences us today.”

In 2002, Schramm-Sapyta was recruited to Duke University for a postdoctoral research fellowship in the lab of Cynthia Kuhn, PhD, professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, where she continued to study addiction in adolescence.

Another view of Nicole standing outside.

She introduced a concept to the lab known as a “conditioned taste aversion” in which she showed that rats, who normally favor sugar water over regular water, grew to not choose the sugar water over time when it was paired with an injection of an addictive drug.

“They learned to associate the icky feeling brought on by the injection of the drug with the sweet taste,” said Schramm-Sapyta. What’s more, younger rats were less sensitive to the aversive effects of the drug than the older rats. This model has been repeated in a number of animal and human models since then, with all showing that adolescents are less sensitive to the bad feelings of drug or alcohol abuse than adults.

After Schramm-Sapyta left Kuhn’s lab in 2008 to sign on as a faculty member in the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) and in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Kuhn continued to use the conditioned test aversion experiment and applied it to current projects studying conditioned nausea.

“She was a terrific addition to the lab,” Kuhn said. “I have been so proud to see her develop these talents, and, in the process, contribute so much to DIBS and to Duke.”

Addiction in Durham

For Schramm-Sapyta, the early lab work fueled a passion to help people in her community suffering from addiction. After moving into a teaching faculty position, she began to look for ways to partner with the Durham community and involve her students in local research projects.

In 2016, she started working with a Duke Bass Connections Brain & Society team to learn more about the opiate epidemic in Durham. In Bass Connections, students and faculty tackle real-world problems as a team through research, creativity, and collaboration with external partners.

To learn more about the local law-enforcement perspective on drug use, Schramm-Sapyta’s Bass Connections team met with members of the Durham Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). CIT members are police officers and other first responders who have received extensive special training to respond to citizens in crisis, often due to underlying behavioral health issues such as addiction or mental illness. More than 950 first responders in Durham have been CIT-trained since 2007.

When Schramm-Sapyta and her students first met with the CIT officers, a one-hour meeting stretched to more than two hours of open, honest discussion. The students asked hard questions and the officers responded with experience, policy information and honesty. The Bass Connections students were very impressed, and sought to spread the word through their project, “Stemming the Opiate Epidemic Through Education and Outreach.” They organized two CIT presentations on campus and three Mental Health First Aid training sessions, the latter completed by more than 100 members of the Duke community.

Schramm-Sapyta and students were encouraged to return and brainstorm with CIT members about ways Duke could support the program. They learned the CIT had lots of data on 9-1-1 calls but no one to analyze it and make it useful to CIT. Schramm-Sapyta connected with Paul Bendich, associate professor of math and Data+ leader at Duke, and that launched the first Data+/CIT project, “Mental Health Interventions by Durham Police.”

Data+, run by the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke, is a 10-week summer research experience for undergraduates interested in exploring new data-driven approaches to complex challenges.

The Data+ team’s first project was to analyze 9-1-1 calls between 2011 and 2016 to determine if there were any patterns related to CIT-tagged calls—and they found them. Behavioral health-related calls typically peak on Wednesdays between 8 a.m. and noon, (“Hump Day is real,” said Schramm-Sapyta), but are sparse on Sunday mornings between 4 and 8 a.m.—information CIT could then use to deploy resources.

Students also looked at the number of CIT calls in different areas of the city. Schramm-Sapyta said, “We found that the poorest areas of our city are the greatest users of CIT services.” That’s good news in that it suggests citizens are familiar with CIT and its services, and the services are going where they are most needed, she pointed out. “It also suggests the need for greater mental health services in these areas, so that crises can be averted.”

In 2017, a second Data+ project looked at whether CIT was helping reduce recidivism, i.e., how often convicted criminals are returning to jail after they have been released. Those identified as having a behavioral health issue are much more likely to return to jail, Schramm-Sapyta noted. This time, data were provided by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office and the Durham County Detention Facility.

“Before CIT existed, recidivism was on the rise in Durham,” Schramm-Sapyta said. “As CIT was first established, and the program began to grow, recidivism leveled off.” In the most recent five years, as CIT and Durham have grown rapidly, and other mental health services at the jail and in the community have increased, recidivism has dropped sharply, she noted.

“This is a fantastic example of the potential for really deep, enduring partnerships between Duke and local institutions and law enforcement in the city and county of Durham,” said Ed Balleisen, PhD, Duke’s Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, who oversees both DIBS and Bass Connections. “These projects ask significant research questions that can inform decision-making and deploy the creativity of Duke’s faculty and students in partnership with local institutions to carry out that research,” he said. “They present their findings with an eye toward allowing decision-makers to see their world more clearly and have a better sense of what’s working and what isn’t.”

Laylon Williams, the Durham CIT Coordinator for First Responders, said working with Schramm-Sapyta and her students has been a boon for his team.

“Our CIT Leadership Team met her and we all absolutely fell in love with her and the kind of person she is,” said Williams. “Nicole has been actively attending our CIT Leadership Meetings every month and she has helped the CIT Team to analyze our data through the Data+ project and other City and County analysis. She was awarded with our Volunteer of the Year Award in 2018 because she helped us to see the effectiveness of our program through the data analysis. We are so thankful for her and all that she does for our Durham CIT Team and our Durham Community.”

CIT honorees.In 2020, Schramm-Sapyta expanded the project by adding another data set: health records of more than 17,000 people who have migrated through the Durham County Jail and were also seen at Duke Health between 2014-2018. The jail shared names with Duke Health’s Analytic Center of Excellence, which then matched the names to health records but removed identifying information such as names and addresses to keep the data set confidential.

This summer, a new cohort of students in the Data+ program will help Schramm-Sapyta crunch the data to determine connections between mental health diagnoses and returns to jail.

“We want to know if there is anything that Duke, the county, or the jail can do differently to help these people,” she said. “The idea is to see what’s working, what can be improved.”

By Lindsay Key; originally posted on the Duke School of Medicine’s Magnify Magazine. Kathy Neal, DIBS, and Sarah Dwyer, Bass Connections, contributed to this story.

All photography by Joshua Chorman. Chorman is a Video Producer/Director at the Duke School of Medicine, and manages the @dukemdprogram Instagram/Facebook page. 

Lindsay Key is the science writer for the Duke University School of Medicine, and editor of the online storytelling magazine Magnify.

Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Announces Research Incubator Awards for Six Teams

DIBS Awards 2019 Research Incubator Grants.

Interdisciplinary Program Leverages Seed Funding into 7-to-1 Return on Investment

Six interdisciplinary teams have received 2019 Research Incubator Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). The $100,000 awards are designed to promote high-risk/high-return neuroscience research that is collaborative, crosses academic boundaries, and is likely to draw external funding. The projects also help train the next generation of scientists by involving graduate students and postdoctoral associates.

“We were really pleased with the breadth and depth of the Research Incubator proposals we received this year,” said DIBS Associate Director Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, who administers the program. “This year’s awardees are addressing transformational issues such as better autism screening, enhanced artificial speech, and new ways to understand and treat movement and memory disorders.” Awardees represent three schools (Medicine, Pratt School of Engineering, and Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) and a dozen different departments within those schools, she added.

Five teams are supported through DIBS; a sixth was funded through the generosity of the DIBS External Advisory Board. Geraldine Dawson, who directs the Institute, stressed the positive return on investment of the Incubator Award program. “Between 2013 and 2018, Incubator projects have generated a seven-to-one return on investment,” she noted. That is, for every $1 it costs to fund the awards, $7 are returned to the university through federal grants and other external funding.

Teams must be composed of faculty leaders who represent at least two different departments at Duke. Projects that include investigators from multiple schools within the University (e.g., School of Medicine, Arts & Sciences, Pratt School of Engineering) are encouraged. Criteria for awards included innovation, interdisciplinarity, significance to the brain sciences, quality of the approach, feasibility, and potential to lead to external funding. Following is a list of this year’s team members and their projects:

2019 DIBS Research Incubator Grants

Team MembersTitle & Lay Summary
PI: Greg Cogan, PhD
School of Medicine

Also School of Medicine:
Saurabh Sinha, MD, PhD, Neurology
Derek Southwell, PhD, Neurosurgery
John Pearson, PhD, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics

Jonathan Viventi, PhD
Biomedical Engineering
Pratt School of Engineering
Decoding of Speech for Neural Prostheses Using High-density Electrocorticography and Machine Learning

Language allows us to express our thoughts and understand the thoughts of others. People who lack this ability feel isolated, lonely, and frustrated. Patients who suffer from debilitating neuromuscular disorders have difficulty communicating through language.

Current technologies that provide some ability to communicate are slow and cumbersome. This group will explore a promising new technology that constructs speech directly from the brain. The team will develop pattern analysis techniques to extract speech and language information directly from brain signals, while also measuring the brain signals at much higher resolution than previously done.

The team hopes to use this information to create better-quality speech sounds for patients with neuromuscular disorders, helping them speak more clearly, allowing them to communicate more effectively.
PI: Jenna McHenry, PhD
Psychology & Neuroscience
Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

Diego Bohórquez, PhD
School of Medicine
Functional Interrogation of Reproductive Peripheral-brain Circuits for Controlling Social and Affective States

Many human neuropsychiatric disorders have differing prevalence in males versus females. For example, autism spectrum disorders are four times more common in males, whereas mood disorders are twice as common in females. Sex biases are clues to the underlying neurobiological mechanisms, yet the neural circuits involved remain undefined. Sexual differentiation of the brain and reproductive system occurs early in life, but it is unknown how sensory inputs in adulthood traverse the reproductive-brain-axis to modulate behavior and moods.

Traditionally, it was thought that communication between these systems occurred only through hormones that travel through the blood. However, the Bohórquez Lab recently discovered that information can travel directly from the gut to the brain. The reproductive system likely operates through similar mechanisms, but those mechanisms remain undefined. The goal of this study is to look for such direct links between the reproductive system and the brain. The McHenry Lab has expertise using novel circuit techniques to study how reproductive hormonal systems coordinate neural activity for social and emotional behaviors. These researchers will combine their expertise to map out the circuits that link the brain and reproductive organs.
PI: Marc Sommer, PhD
Biomedical Engineering
Pratt School of Engineering

Elika Bergelson, PhD
Psychology & Neuroscience
Trinity College of Arts & Sciences

John Pearson, PhD
Biostatistics & Bioinformatics
School of Medicine
Computational Links between Visual and Linguistic Perception

The brain converts sensory input into “percepts” that are meaningful for thought and action. For example, when we look at a glass of orange juice on a table, our eyes receive a disjointed collection of contrast levels and light wavelengths, but our brain perceives this information as a glass that can be picked up. How does the brain do this?

Theories of perception either assume that the brain constructs a model of the world that merges past experiences with current evidence, or that it relies on simple, flexible systems to classify patterns. This research group has recently shown that for visual perception, humans switch between the two strategies. This switch in strategies might be special to vision or general to all perception. The group will therefore perform similar experiments in the domain of language. Finding computational commonalities between vision and language will help reveal general principles of brain function and provide insight into perceptual disorders.
PI: Elena Tenenbaum, PhD
Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences
School of Medicine

Also School of Medicine:
Geraldine Dawson, PhD, and Kathryn Gustafson
Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

Kimberley Fisher, PhD, and William Malcolm, MD
Using Computer Vision to Screen for ASD in Toddlers and Infants Born Premature

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder with symptoms emerging in infancy. Despite this early onset, many children with ASD are not diagnosed until they approach school age. This delay is greater among children of color and those living in under-resourced communities.

Formal diagnosis of autism is time-consuming and requires a specially-trained provider, which limits availability. Furthermore, current methods are not designed for use with infants. To improve on current screening methods, researchers at Duke designed SenseToKnow, a tablet-based application (app) that was designed to assess for risk of ASD and can be administered during a standard doctor’s office visit, making it widely accessible. This group will test the app with toddlers who were born premature to determine whether it can distinguish risk for ASD from risk for other developmental disorders. The group will also test the app with infants born premature to determine whether it can be used effectively in infancy. If we can identify children at risk for ASD early and accurately, we can improve access to diagnostic assessments and intervention and thereby improve outcomes.
PI: Huanghe Yang, PhD
Biochemistry & Neurobiology
School of Medicine

Mohamad Mikati, MD
School of Medicine
Targeting BK Calcium-activated Potassium Channel to Treat Epilepsy & Dyskinesia

Epilepsy and dyskinesia are two types of neurological disorders that feature seizures and involuntary movements. They affect millions of people, who often face higher frequency of depression and other mood disorders, challenges in education and social life, and higher risk of early death. About one-third of epilepsy patients live with uncontrollable seizures due to lack of effective medication. It is thus urgent to better understand the pathophysiology of these conditions, so that we can develop new therapeutics.

Dr. Yang is an expert in the physiology of “BK”-type ion channels. Dr. Mikati is a pediatrician who has identified patients with epilepsy and dyskinesia who have mutations in these types of ion channels. Together, they will work to understand how these mutations cause the neurological symptoms and how to design new precision therapeutics, using a mouse model with the human mutation in the channel.
Junjie Yao, PhD
Biomedical Engineering
Pratt School of Engineering

Wei Yang, PhD
School of Medicine
Head-mounted Photoacoustic Imaging of Deep-brain Neural Activities in Freely-Behaving Animals

The brain is an incredibly powerful information-processing center, responding to millions of inputs each day. The best way to learn about brain activity is, of course, to have the brain be alert and active. Yet many of our evaluation techniques require subjects to lie still, often sedated, during the scans. This group will therefore work to develop tools to collect data from awake, behaving animals using photoacoustic imaging (PAM).

PAM is based on the photoacoustic effect: When laser (light) pulses are sent into brain of freely moving animals, they generate soundwaves that can be transformed into images that represent how neurons are firing at the time. These methods can be used in many applications, including during cognitive tasks or when stroke happens. This new methodology could become a powerful tool to help scientists unlock the brain’s inner workings.

Originally posted on the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences website

Four Teams Receive Germinator Awards to Grow New Ideas in Neuroscience Research

DIBS Germinator Awards.

Four interdisciplinary research teams will conduct innovative neuroscience research with support from 2019 Research Germinator Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). The teams are focused on:

  • Reducing post-operative cognitive decline for people with dementia
  • Understanding biofeedback at the neural level, through advanced imaging and computational analysis
  • Exploring the cognitive and neural mechanisms that update knowledge and beliefs
  • Developing more accurate and cost-effective technology to guide Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, a treatment method used with a wide range of brain disorders

“I am excited to see the breadth of topics and technologies that are represented in 2019 Germinator applications,” said DIBS Director Geraldine Dawson. “We also appreciated the wide representation across Duke University.” The 14 researchers on this year’s Germinator teams represent seven departments from three schools: Arts & Sciences, Medicine, and Pratt School of Engineering.

This is the second year for DIBS Research Germinator Awards, which are designed to support requests for training, pilot data, non-faculty salary, and/or equipment that would jump start new research and, if successful, lead to external funding. Graduate students, postdoctoral associates, and faculty are eligible to submit proposals for up to $25,000. Lead investigators of the 2019 awards represent the full range of eligibility, including a postdoctoral fellow, two graduate students, and faculty members.

Please see following chart for more information about the 2019 Germinator Award projects. The call for Letters of Intent for the 2020 Germinator Awards will go out this spring. More information may be found on the DIBS website:

2019 Germinator Award Recipients & Project Synopses

Investigators Germinator Award Project Synopses
Ravikanth Velagapudi, PhD, Anesthesiology, School of Medicine; and William Huffman, PhD, and David Bradway, PhD, both of Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering  

Targeting Autophagy with Non-Invasive Vagal Nerve Stimulation to Treat Delirium Superimposed on Dementia

People living with dementia often need common surgical interventions such as knee replacement or hip-fracture repair. These patients are at risk for experiencing further cognitive decline after surgery. This research project will address this serious public health concern by providing fundamental knowledge to help reduce the burden of neurologic complications after common surgical procedures and improve the quality of life for these high-risk patients. The aims will implement a new non-invasive approach (stimulation of the vagus nerve) to regulate critical cellular processes involved in many neurological disorders, yet unexplored in the context of perioperative surgical recovery.


Rachael Wright, Psychology & Neuroscience (P&N), Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and DIBS Cognitive Neuroscience Admitting Program (CNAP); Alison Adcock, MD, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; Kevin LaBar, PhD, P&N, and John Pearson, PhD, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, School of Medicine The Spatiotemporal Dynamics of Self-Regulation Learning in Real-time fMRI Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback is a promising method for examining the relationship between brain function and behavior. In neurofeedback, individuals are shown a graphical representation of a specific brain signal and learn to control that brain signal through practice. Scientists can then measure whether regulation of the targeted brain signal impacts thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Clinicians have also applied neurofeedback to help remedy symptoms of psychiatric or neurological disorders, yet scientists still lack an understanding of the neural mechanisms by which the process occurs. To answer this important question, it is critical to investigate how different regions throughout the brain interact during training to help individuals learn to control a specific brain signal. In this project, we develop a new approach to understand how brain states change during neurofeedback learning using advanced brain imaging technology and computational analysis tools. Ultimately, this project will improve our understanding of how neurofeedback works and promote advances in its design and application.


Alyssa Sinclair, CNAP, DIBS, and Arts & Sciences; Alison Adcock, MD, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; and Gregory Samanez-Larkin, PhD and Elizabeth Marsh, PhD, both Psychology & Neuroscience in Arts & Sciences Learning From Error: Cognitive, Motivational, and Neural Mechanisms

Learning from error is a fundamental part of real-world cognition. Students must learn from mistakes to gain knowledge. We all draw on past experience to predict the future, but our predictions are not always accurate. In such situations, we must dynamically update our knowledge and strategies. It is clear that learning from error is important for success, but humans can be resistant to change. When new information challenges our beliefs, we often find it difficult to reconcile with our existing knowledge. What are the conditions that make us receptive to feedback, allowing us to learn from error? This group will investigate ways to encourage and support learning from error. They will consider the motivational and emotional factors that shape how we respond to feedback, predicting that learning about how memories integrate with experience will make participants more receptive to feedback. They aim to uncover the cognitive and neural mechanisms of knowledge and belief updating, bearing implications for both educational practices and the pervasive spread of misinformation in the media.


Angel V. Peterchev, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; Guillermo Sapiro, PhD, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering; Dennis A. Turner, MD, Neurosurgery, School of Medicine; Stefan M. Goetz, PhD, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine Accurate, Affordable, and Easy-to-Use Navigation for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) uses magnetic fields sent from a “wand” placed on the head to safely improve brain function without drugs or surgery. TMS is approved for treatment of brain disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and migraine. It also holds promise for studying and treating other psychiatric and neurological illnesses. TMS interventions rely on precise targeting of areas of the brain that may not be functioning well. However, existing TMS devices have limited utility because they require the user to wear expensive and uncomfortable equipment, in order to accurately target the proper brain regions. This group will develop a cheaper, simpler, and more comfortable tool to position the stimulator over the correct brain target. Drawing on recent developments in computer vision and smart cameras, the group will develop technology could enable better brain research and clinical treatments.


Originally posted on the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences website