Six Teams Receive 2018-19 Research Incubator Awards from Duke Institute for Brain Sciences

Hiroaki Matsunami, Mike Tadross, Jörg Grandl, Jessica R. Lunsford-Avery, John Pearson, Elika Bergelson

Six interdisciplinary Duke faculty teams have received 2018-2019 Research Incubator Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). The awards provide seed funding to support collaborative brain science research for projects of exceptional innovation and broad significance to the field.

The projects must engage at least two faculty representing multiple fields or levels of analysis and bring together investigators from across Duke whose individual programs of research are not already connected.

“These outstanding teams will investigate a wide range of topics in innovative and collaborative ways,” said Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., Chair of the DIBS Faculty Governance Committee and Director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. “We are excited to see the results of this research and the new collaborations that will emerge from it.”

The teams represent 11 departments in three schools: Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, Molecular Genetics & Microbiology, Neurobiology, Ophthalmology, Pediatrics, Pharmacology & Cancer Biology, and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, from the School of Medicine; Biomedical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, and Electrical & Computer Engineering, from the Pratt School of Engineering; and Psychology & Neuroscience from Trinity College of Arts & Sciences.

This year’s research topics include the sense of smell and copper metabolism, sleep rhythms and their relationship to health, neuron specialization, brain states as assessed by real-time analysis of neural activity, and early language development in the visually impaired. Each team will receive $100,000.

External Advisory Board Honors Memory of Julie Rhodes with Sixth Award

For the second year, the DIBS External Advisory Board members voted to fund an award in addition to the five supported by DIBS funding. This year’s sixth award honors the memory of Julie Rhodes, the first DIBS Director of Communications. A talented graphic designer and communicator, Rhodes was instrumental in the planning and opening of the new DIBS “Cube” and underground space. She died on August 17, 2018.

The project led by investigators Mike Tadross, Biomedical Engineering and Neurobiology, and Kafui Dzirasa, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, was selected by the board. This project will examine the mechanism by which ketamine alleviates depression, in an effort to identify new therapeutic approaches. “We are very grateful to the Board members for their contributions to this valuable program, and for honoring Julie Rhodes, who was an extraordinary contributor to the success of the Institute,” said Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, Ph.D., DIBS Chief Operating Officer, who worked closely with Rhodes.

Earlier this year, DIBS announced recipients of its inaugural Research Germinator Awards, designed to support smaller, targeted requests for training, pilot data, 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 (nonrenewable). These awards are open to Duke graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty, and may be applied for by a single person or a team. See the Germinator teams and projects.

“One of our strategic priorities is catalyzing collaborative research,” Dawson said. “These awards programs help support the kind of high-risk, high-reward projects that make Duke and DIBS leaders in neuroscience.”

Following is more information on the six 2018-2019 Research Incubator Awards teams and projects.

2018-2019 DIBS Research Incubator Award Recipients and Projects

Smelling Sulfur in Wilson’s Disease: How Does Copper Metabolism Affect Olfaction?

Wilson’s disease is a genetic disease caused by mutations in the copper transporter gene ATP7A, resulting in toxic accumulation of copper in various organs. This progressive accumulation eventually leads to liver and kidney damage and various neurological problems, among other complications. One curious attribute of patients with Wilson’s disease: they seem to be indifferent to sulfur-containing odors such as skunk spray, flatulence, and natural gas additive, which have a strong, disagreeable odor to most people. This suggests an unexpected link between copper metabolism and olfaction. We assembled a strong interdisciplinary team with complementary expertise in odor-receptor interactions (Matsunami) and odor-mediated behavior and odor coding in the brain (Franks), and copper transporters and copper metabolism (Thiele) to study this copper-dependent olfactory defect. We will test the hypothesis that copper-olfactory receptor-odorant interactions in the nasal mucosa are essential for sensitive detection and signaling of sulfur-containing odors, and copper maldistribution caused by Wilson’s disease compromises olfactory sensory neuron responses and specific odorant detection. Our project will validate a novel mechanism underlying the fundamental biology of smell and, importantly, could lead to an innovative olfactory-based method to screen non-invasively Wilson’s disease patients, enabling early interventions to reduce irreversible brain damage.

Principal Investigator (PI): Hiroaki Matsunami, Professor, Molecular Genetics & Microbiology; Dennis Thiele, George Barth Geller Professor, Pharmacology & Cancer Biology; Kevin Franks, Assistant Professor, Neurobiology. All are affiliated with the School of Medicine.

Deconstructing the Glutamatergic Basis of Depression

Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the world. Pharmacological treatments available fail to adequately treat the disorder in up to 50 percent of patients. Recent evidence indicates that ketamine, a drug with anesthetic and pain-killing properties, can effectively treat symptoms in this population. However, ketamine has many side effects that limit its broad clinical utility. In this study, we will use two groundbreaking technologies to uncover the mechanisms underlying ketamine’s antidepressant effects. The first technology, Drugs Acutely Restricted by Tethering (DART), offers the unprecedented opportunity to deliver drugs to genetically defined cell types in the brain. The second technology, Whole-Brain Electome Mapping (WBEM), allows characterization of whole-brain dynamics in animal models of depression, offering the opportunity to observe mood-related brain states with a sensitivity and specificity surpassing all known behavioral correlates of disease. Successful completion of this work will yield a multi-scale understanding of depression, providing insight into how a precise pharmacological intervention, targeted to specific cells in the brain, propagates to affect whole-brain dynamics and behavior. The work has the potential to yield a new class of precision therapeutics to rapidly reverse depressive symptoms in a broad patient population. (Note: This project was selected by the DIBS External Advisory Board to honor the memory of Julie Rhodes, the first DIBS Communications Director, who died in August 2018.)

PI: Mike Tadross, Assistant Professor, Biomedical Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering; Kafui Dzirasa, Associate Professor, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine

Quantitative Investigation of the Specialization of Mechanotransduction Neurons

The sense of touch is crucial for our survival, and its malfunction is associated with inflammatory pain and chronic pain, for which medical treatments are still disappointingly inadequate. For this project, we will investigate how specific nerve cells are specialized to sense mechanical touch. Ample experimental evidence already suggests such a specialization. For example, some nerve cells only detect light mechanical indentation, whereas others respond exclusively to deeper indentation. We suspect that many additional types of specialization exist. However, a fundamental investigation and classification of nerve cells has never been performed, in part because this has not been technically possible. We will overcome this limitation by engineering a unique instrument that can measure precisely the electrical activity of nerve cells in response to a clearly defined mechanical stimulus. Next, we plan to use this instrument to measure and characterize hundreds of nerve cells, which will enable us for the first time to reveal exactly how they are specialized to sense mechanical touch. This knowledge would enable us to study the genes and molecules that determine the specialization of nerve cells for sensing mechanical touch and understand how the electrical response of neurons is changed in disease conditions, such as inflammatory pain.

PI: Jörg Grandl, Assistant Professor, Neurobiology, School of Medicine; Stefan Zauscher, Sternberg Family Professor, Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Pratt School of Engineering

Harnessing Sleep/Circadian Rhythm Data as a Biomarker to Mitigate Health Risks

Sleep is essential to sustaining health. Many individuals and their doctors know sleep is important, but they often do not identify sleep problems during routine doctors’ visits, and as a result, the problems are not sufficiently addressed. One obstacle to the convenient measurement of sleep is its complexity. A good night’s sleep depends on an individual’s daily rest and activity rhythms, the length and quality of their sleep, time spent in sleep stages (e.g., deep sleep versus rapid eye movement sleep), and their behaviors, such as maintaining a consistent bedtime. We do not know the specific patterns of sleep that place people at risk for – or protect them from – health problems. In addition, traditional ways of identifying sleep problems, such as spending the night in a sleep clinic, are often expensive or unavailable to many. This study will use wearable sleep monitors (i.e., similar to Fitbits) to identify the patterns of sleep that increase risk for health problems. As a first step, our team – including psychiatry, engineering, neurology, and sleep medicine specialists – will identify patterns that increase risk for mental health problems among adolescents, who are especially vulnerable to both sleep and psychiatric problems. We will also examine patients’ perceptions of the ease and acceptability of using wearable monitors to measure sleep in their health care setting. In the future, we hope to apply the patterns of sleep problems identified in this study to the detection of risk for a range of health problems for individuals of all ages.

PI: Jessica R. Lunsford-Avery, Assistant Professor, Psychiatry &  Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; Matthew Engelhard, Senior Research Associate, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine, and Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering; Scott Kollins, Professor, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine; Ricardo Henao, Assistant Professor, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics, School of Medicine, and Electrical & Computer Engineering, Pratt School of Engineering; Sujay Kansagra, Assistant Professor, Pediatrics, School of Medicine

Interrogation and Manipulation of Brain States through Real-time Analysis of Neural Activity

One of the great challenges in neuroscience is to understand how local groups of cells work together in circuits to generate complex behaviors. Historically, scientists have been limited to studying only a few of these cells at a time, yet new developments in microscope and imaging technology have recently made it possible to study much larger groups of cells. For some small animals such as the zebrafish, transparent in its larval state, it is possible to record the activity of nearly all brain cells at once. But there’s a downside: These new experiments can generate up to a terabyte of data an hour, enough to fill several hard drives per experiment! And often, the data from one day must be analyzed overnight on a computer cluster before the next experiment can start. The goal of our project is to remove much of this data analysis burden by using newly developed data processing methods and computer hardware to analyze the incoming brain signals in real time. Our goal is to perform so-called closed-loop, all-optical experiments, in which the incoming data change the experiment as it’s being run—a feedback loop. For example, we will be able to see how some neurons respond to visual information as the data are being collected and to stimulate these same neurons based on their response patterns. Methods like these promise to dramatically expand our understanding of how networks of brain cells function together, not only in healthy brains, but in those affected by neuropsychiatric diseases.

PI: John Pearson, Assistant Professor, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics; Eva Aimable Naumann, Assistant Professor, Neurobiology. Both are affiliated with the School of Medicine.

Early Language Development in the Visually Impaired

Children with high levels of hearing loss who receive late intervention usually have poor language outcomes, but children with high levels of vision loss generally attain language abilities akin to typically developing peers. Blind adults and older children have largely indistinguishable language abilities from sighted individuals, although research reports some brain differences in responses to auditory and linguistic stimuli; however, early language abilities in young blind children have been very little studied. This is significant, given that vision loss effects >75,000 children under age 4 in the U.S. One major roadblock to understanding early language abilities under visual impairment is the lack of methods that can be used across blind and sighted infants. Reports from parents can be informative, but they may be subject to parental opinion. Direct assessments provide a more accurate measure of children’s receptive vocabulary; however, standard eye-tracking approaches (which measure the time infants spend looking at named objects) are not possible in blind infants. We propose to extend to blind infants the auditory-based electro-encephalography (EEG) paradigms that have been well-established with infants and toddlers developing typically. Uncovering how blind children learn and represent words will reveal how sensory impairment fundamentally shapes the developing brain, which will in turn inform our understanding of cognition and language more generally. These results also will inform potential training regimens that can mitigate language delays and deficits in both children and adults.

PI: Elika Bergelson, Assistant Professor, Psychology & Neuroscience, Arts & Sciences (A&S); Marty Woldorff, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, School of Medicine, and Psychology & Neuroscience, A&S; Sharon Freedman, Professor, Ophthalmology and Pediatrics, School of Medicine

Originally posted on the DIBS website

Image: Top row, Hiroaki Matsunami, Mike Tadross, Jörg Grandl; bottom row, Jessica R. Lunsford-Avery, John Pearson, Elika Bergelson

Marshall Scholars Rooted in Interdisciplinary Scholarship on Energy and Brain Sciences

Duke students at the Summer Neuroscience Program poster session.

Duke University seniors Julie Uchitel and Shomik Verma have received the highly competitive Marshall Scholarship to pursue postgraduate studies in the U.K. Like Duke’s 2019 Rhodes Scholars, they have deep roots in the intellectual communities of Duke’s university-wide interdisciplinary institutes and initiatives.

Julie Uchitel

Julie Uchitel.A double major in Neuroscience and French, Uchitel has many ties to the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). She serves as president of the Neuroscience Majors’ Union and was the Department of Neuroscience nominee for the Faculty Scholar Award.

Uchitel took part in the 2018 Summer Neuroscience Program, jumpstarting her senior thesis by working one-on-one for eight weeks with her mentor, Mohamad Mikati. A DIBS Faculty Network member, Mikati is the Wilburt C. Davison Professor of Pediatrics in the School of Medicine.

The Summer Neuroscience Program is offered through DIBS and is part of the Bass Connections theme in Brain & Society. Uchitel runs the Duke Summer Neuroscience Program/Neuroscience Majors’ Union Peer Mentoring Program, which creates matches and hosts monthly dinner talks and social events to facilitate bonding.

For her Marshall Scholarship, Uchitel will pursue a research master of philosophy (M.Phil.) in pediatrics at Cambridge, developing an optical imaging technology for newborns at risk for brain injury, and a master’s degree in international child studies at King’s College London.

Shomik Verma

Shomik Verma.Verma has been highly engaged in the Duke University Energy Initiative community throughout his undergraduate education. Majoring in Mechanical Engineering, with minors in Energy Engineering and Mathematics, he has been working on energy research in the Thermodynamics and Sustainable Energy Laboratory with Nico Hotz, Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science.

Verma has served as co-president and technical lead of the Duke Electric Vehicles team, building a hydrogen fuel cell car and leading a student team to a Guinness World Record for the most fuel-efficient human-carrying vehicle ever built. The team also received top prizes at the 2018 Shell Vehicle Eco-Marathon.

As president of the Duke Energy Club, he worked with the Energy Initiative to create three new assistantships for students to do energy research with faculty. He is co-president of the Duke Smart Home and has been involved with Duke’s Solar Spring Break, in which undergraduates partner with underserved communities to install solar panels.

As a Marshall Scholar, Verma will join the lab of Rachel Evans at Cambridge to develop novel materials that increase the efficiency of solar photovoltaic cells.

Read the related article on the Duke Today website.

Image at top by Ben Shepard: Uchitel (bottom row, third from right) and fellow students at the Summer 2018 poster session for the Summer Neuroscience, Huang Fellows, and Office of Undergraduate Research Support programs

December 6, 2018

Seven Projects Receive 2018 Germinator Research Awards

Photo: SeedlingbyNik@Unsplash

Interdisciplinary projects involve new approaches to neuroscience topics

Seven projects involving nearly two dozen Duke clinical and basic-science faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students have received the inaugural Germinator Research Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS), the Institute’s Faculty Governance Committee Chair, Geraldine Dawson, announced today.

The awards grew out of DIBS Town Hall discussions, part of the strategic-planning process completed in February 2018. “We heard from the DIBS community the need to augment our larger grant program, the Incubator Research Awards, with support for small, targeted funding requests open to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows as well as faculty.” Dawson said. The Germinator Research Awards program was the result.

“These funded projects offer exciting new ways to encourage interdisciplinary approaches to important questions,” she added. Germinator projects receive up to a maximum of $25,000 and may go to single investigators. They must catalyze new research or collaboration and/or enhance chances of obtaining external funding.

2018 Germinator Award Recipients

Toward a Computational Psychiatry of Transdiagnostic Deficits in Cognitive Control
  • Christina Bejjani and Tobias Egner, Psychology & Neuroscience (P&N), Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (CCN); John Pearson, Biostatistics & Bioinformatics and CCN; Terrie E. Moffitt, P&N, Psychiatry & Behavioral  Sciences, Center for Genomic & Computational Biology (CGCB); Social Behaviour & Development, King’s College, London; Avshalom Caspi, P&N, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, CGCB; Social Behaviour & Development, King’s College, London; and R. Alison Adcock, P&N, CCN, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

This research project brings together the fields of psychiatry, developmental psychology, machine learning, biostatistics, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience with a goal of improving diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders. The team will use computational psychiatry, a relatively new field described by the National Institute of Mental Health as “analytical approaches for the prediction of risk and treatment response and the understanding of the pathophysiology underlying mental disorders.” This could provide alternative methods of diagnosis, currently based primarily on external observed behaviors and self-reporting.

Effect of Connectivity-based rTMS and State-Dependency on Amygdala Activation
  • Lysianne Beynel, Nathan Kimbrel, Greg Appelbaum, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences; Simon Davis, Neurology

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is can be highly debilitating, with low response rates to pharmacological treatment. Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), which uses magnetic fields to affect the brain, has demonstrated only modest efficacy. The shallow penetration of rTMS is insufficient to directly affect deep brain structures such as the amygdala, the brain area affected in PTSD. This team seeks to improve the therapeutic efficacy of rTMS for PTSD by reaching the amygdala indirectly, through its connections to other brain regions. Successful completion of this project could lead to significant long-term contributions to both clinical applications and mechanistic understanding of brain/behavior relationships. The project will involve Duke School of Medicine and the Durham VA Health Care System.

Eulemur as a Primate Model for Oxytocin System Evolution and Function
  • Nicholas Grebe and Christine Drea, Evolutionary Anthropology

Among closely related group-living primates of the genus Eulemur (lemurs, native to Madagascar), some male and female lemurs form monogamous pair bonds; others mate with multiple partners. This unique behavior may be related to the mammalian neuropeptide oxytocin, which facilitates formation and maintenance of social bonding. Being able to assess the comparative neuroendocrinology of pair-bonding in Eulemur will offer significant insights on how this neuropeptide works. This non-invasive research is a collaboration involving Evolutionary Anthropology and Biology and the Research Division of the Duke Lemur Center. It represents a new program of lemur brain science with potential implications for human behavior.

Testing a Neurocognitive Model of Emotional Distancing Using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Kevin LaBar, P&N, CCN; Simon Davis, Neurology; Andrada Neacsiu, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences; John Powers, P&N

Emotion regulation is a core component of therapeutic approaches to alleviate distress associated with psychiatric disorders. Distancing is an emotion regulation strategy that relies on self-projection, or the ability to shift perspective from the here and now to a simulated time, place, or person. The team has developed a new model of the neurocognitive processes that contribute to distancing as a successful emotion regulation strategy. We aim to test this model using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) in healthy adults.

A Flexible Neural Framework for Decision-Making Across Human Development:  Testing the Influence of Information and Arousal
  • Rosa Li, Duke Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science, DIBS

Prevailing neural models of decision-making across human development propose that risk-taking peaks in adolescence due to a unique adolescent imbalance between cognitive control via the prefrontal cortex and reward-processing via limbic regions. Though such dual-systems models seem to fit neural data, they have not generated behavioral predictions borne out in the laboratory. One theory is that they fail to account for differences between laboratory and daily decisions related to relative levels of information available and arousal, or attentiveness. Dr. Li, a postdoctoral fellow, hypothesizes a more flexible neural model would yield better information to help understand adolescent neural circuitry and decision-making.

Virally Mediated Transduction of Light-Sensitive Ion Channels in Brainstem Motoneurons of Macaques
  • Marc A. Sommer and Martin O. Bohlen, Biomedical Engineering

This project will apply optogenetics, a biological technique to control neurons by using light, to non-human primates, with a goal of understanding more completely how nerve cells drive muscle activity. That could lead scientists to the ability to manipulate neuromuscular circuitry in non-human primates, an outcome that holds potential benefit to humans with neuromuscular diseases such as multiple sclerosis. The project also has a substantial education component for graduate students and medical students studying “Brain and Behavior” at Duke.

Restore Tactile Sensation and Proprioception in Lower Limb Amputees Using Epidural Spinal Cord Stimulation
  • Amol Yadav, postdoctoral associate, Muhammad Abd-El-Barr, and Nandan Lad, Neurosurgery; Tim Sell, Orthopedic Surgery; Paul Howell, Durham VA Health Care System, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services

Amputation of a lower limb hinders movement significantly. Modern prosthetic leg technology helps, but cannot duplicate the ability of the human leg to relay vital sensory information to the brain about the body’s surroundings, nor can it address the often-intense “phantom pain,” which is pain felt in missing limbs, likely generated by the brain and spinal cord. A team of neurosurgeons, physical therapists, and rehabilitation medicine experts will work with amputees using spinal-cord stimulation to generate missing sensory information. The goals are to improve rehabilitation and control phantom pain. The project will involve the Duke School of Medicine and the Durham VA Health Care System.

Duke Schools and Programs Represented by 2018 Germinator Award Recipients

Pratt School of Engineering
  • Biomedical Engineering
School of Medicine
  • Biostatistics & Bioinformatics
  • Neurology
  • Neurosurgery
  • Orthopedic Surgery
  • Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences
Trinity College of Arts & Sciences
  • Biology (Center for Genomic & Computational Biology; Duke Lemur Center)
  • Evolutionary Anthropology
  • Psychology & Neuroscience
Duke Institute for Brain Sciences
  • Center for Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Duke Center for Interdisciplinary Decision Science
Durham VA Health Care System
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services

Learn more about DIBS research awards.

Alison Adcock Is Named Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience

Alison Adcock

The Faculty Governance Committee of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) announced the appointment of R. Alison Adcock, M.D., Ph.D., to the position of director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (CCN). Dr. Adcock’s appointment was made by the committee, in consultation with Duke leadership, including the chairs of the Departments of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Neurobiology, and Psychology & Neuroscience, with input from the CCN faculty.

“We are very pleased to have Dr. Adcock in this vital leadership position,” said Geraldine Dawson, chair of the DIBS Faculty Governance Committee and director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. “She brings exceptional research, education, and community-building experience, as well as familiarity with the people and programs of both DIBS and CCN.” Adcock served as CCN’s associate director for three years. She serves on the Faculty Governance Committee and has been a long-standing CCN faculty member.

We are very pleased to have Dr. Adcock in this vital leadership position. She brings exceptional research, education, and community-building experience, as well as familiarity with the people and programs of both DIBS and CCN.

The CCN, a part of DIBS, focuses on research and education in the psychological, computational, and biological mechanisms of higher mental function. CCN faculty examine the variability in these mechanisms among individuals, across the lifespan, and between species. They also explore application of these mechanisms to real-world problems and their dissolution in disease and mental disorders.

The CCN director is responsible for the intellectual and administrative leadership for a three-year renewable term. A key role of the director will be to foster a vibrant research and educational environment and culture for CCN faculty and learners.

Dr. Adcock, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the School of Medicine, received her M.D. and Ph.D. in neurobiology from Yale University. She completed psychiatry residency training at the University of California, San Francisco, and did neuroscience research as a postdoctoral fellow at UC-SF, the San Francisco VA Medical Center, and Stanford before joining the Duke faculty in 2007. Her research program goals are to understand how brain systems for motivation support learning and to use mechanistic understanding of how behavior changes biology to meet the challenge of developing new therapies for early interventions for mental illness.

Photo by Jeff MacInnes

Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Launches 2018-19 Research Awards

Deadline: March 1, 2018 for Letters of Intent; June 1, 2018 for Applications

The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences Faculty Governance Committee announces that the application process for competitive research awards is now open. There will be two award mechanisms: the Research Incubator Award and the new Research Germinator Award.

To apply for either funding mechanism, one-page Letters of Intent (PDF) must be submitted by 5 p.m. ET on Thursday, March 1, to Dr. Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, DIBS Chief Operating Officer, at

Once Letters of Intent have been received and reviewed, applicants will be notified by March 5 whether they are approved to proceed to apply for the selected award. The proposals and applications will be due by 5 p.m. ET on Friday, June 1. For more information about the awards and application process, please see the DIBS Research Awards website, which also includes separate links to award proposal/application forms (Word documents).

Research Incubator Awards

The DIBS Research Incubator Awards provide up to $100,000 for one year (non-renewable) to support interdisciplinary and collaborative brain science research within Duke.  Projects should be of exceptional innovation and broad significance to the field. The projects must engage at least two faculty representing multiple fields or levels of analysis and bring together investigators whose individual programs of research are not already connected. Duke faculty may apply.

Research Germinator Awards

The new DIBS Research Germinator Awards are designed to support smaller, targeted requests for training, pilot data, 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 for one year (non-renewable). Duke graduate students, postdocs and faculty may apply.

Both awards serve the DIBS mission of advancing interdisciplinary research and education that transforms our understanding of brain function and translates into innovative solutions for health and society. To see past awarded projects, click here for information about the 2017-2018 Research Incubator Awards.

Letters of Intent will be reviewed and applicants will be notified by March 5 whether they are approved to proceed to a full proposal for the selected award mechanism. The proposals and applications will be due by 5 p.m. ET on Friday, June 1.

If you have any questions, please contact Dr. Schramm-Sapyta at

DIBS Faculty Governance Committee

Geraldine Dawson, Chair

Alison Adcock

Nicole Calakos

Kafui Dzirasa

Tobias Egner

Warren Grill

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Fan Wang

Leonard White

Scott Huettel, ex officio

Steve Lisberger, ex officio

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, ex officio

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

Research Incubator Awards

Six interdisciplinary Duke faculty research teams have received 2017-2018 Research Incubator Awards from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). The teams are addressing complex neuroscience issues such as temporal-lobe epilepsy, improved vision for people with prosthetic retinas, and better hearing for those with cochlear implants.

Three new and three existing projects were funded, for six awards—one more than was awarded in 2016-2017. The sixth award was made possible through the generosity of members of the DIBS External Advisory Board. Each team, new or continuing, will receive between $25,000 and $100,000, depending on the size, complexity, and costs for each project.

DIBS Research Incubator Awards provide seed funding to support interdisciplinary and collaborative brain science research within Duke for projects of exceptional innovation and broad significance to the field. The projects must engage at least two faculty representing multiple fields or levels of analysis and bring together investigators from across the university whose individual programs of research are not already connected.

This year’s teams represent more than a dozen disciplines from the campus and the School of Medicine, including anesthesiology, biochemistry, biomedical engineering, cell biology, chemistry, electrical and computer engineering, medicine, neurobiology, ophthalmology, pediatrics, pediatric neurology, psychology and neuroscience, and psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Both junior and senior faculty are participating, as are postdoctoral fellows.

Plans are underway for the 2018-2019 grant process. Updated information and application forms will be provided in early 2018. Please check the Research Incubator Awards page for details.

Following are the new and renewal teams and projects:

2017-2018 New Awards


Drs. James McNamara (Neurobiology), Pei Zhou (Biochemistry), and Robert Anthony Mook (Medicine)

Title: Biochemical and Structural Characterization of Inhibitors of TrkB Signaling

Temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) is a potentially devastating form of human epilepsy for which there is no prevention or cure. A single seizure can disrupt the TrkB signaling pathway, which initiates a chain reaction causing full-on epilepsy. If we can inhibit this chain reaction, we can prevent a single seizure from becoming a devastating illness. This project will explore molecules that inhibit this chain reaction in hopes of finding a prevention method.


Drs. Sina Farsiu and Marc Sommer (Biomedical Engineering) and Lejla Vajzovic (Ophthalmology)

Title: Psychophysics-guided Signal Processing for Retinal Prosthetics

A visual prosthesis, or “bionic eye,” has provided some visual function to patients who were completely blind prior to implantation. A small camera worn externally takes pictures, converts them to electronic signals, and transmits them to an implantable retinal prosthesis. The resulting image has limited resolution due to hardware-design issues, and improving it would require costly development and approval of new devices. This project seeks to improve image resolution through advanced software design, a noninvasive, cost-efficient method that could be adapted to improve the vision of patients with retinal prostheses.


Drs. Tobias Overath (Psychology & Neuroscience), Josh Stohl and Leslie Collins (Electrical & Computer Engineering), and Michael Murias (DIBS)

Title: Optimizing Cochlear Implant Sound Processor Configurations via Neural Response Properties to Improve Speech Comprehension

Nearly one million Americans are functionally deaf and an additional 400,000 are deaf in one ear. The cochlear implant (CI) is the most successful sensory prosthetic implant to help them regain hearing; about 500,000 people in the U.S. have the implants. For many, CIs achieve near-perfect speech comprehension in ideal listening situations. For others, CIs work less well, and adjustments require lengthy appointments. This project aims to optimize CI configuration by recording neural impulses while the patient is listening to speech. Once neural responses are collected, they may be used to reprogram the CI and enhance the implant’s performance, reducing the need for repeated adjustments.

2017-2018 Renewal Awards


Drs. Niccolò Terrando and Miles Berger (Anesthesiology), Warren Grill (Biomedical Engineering), Christina Williams (Psychology & Neuroscience), Chay Kuo (Cell Biology), and William Wetsel (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences)

Title: Bioelectronic Medicine and Cholinergic Regulation of Postoperative Cognitive Dysfunction

Memory dysfunction is a common postsurgical complication and may last for several months, even years. We do not yet know why this decline in memory function occurs, and there is no effective medical treatment to prevent it. The research team has developed a clinically relevant model to study surgery-induced memory dysfunction in mice after a common type of orthopedic surgery. This project will identify cellular processes that may cause postsurgery memory deficits, focusing on interactions between the nervous and immune systems. This work could have a major impact on global health by reducing postoperative cognitive dysfunction.


Drs. Mohamad Mikati (Pediatrics, Neurobiology), Dwight Koeberl (Pediatrics), Scott Moore (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences), and William Wetsel (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences)

Title: Mechanisms of Increased Hippocampal Excitability in the D801N Knock-in Mouse Model of Na/K ATPase Dysfunction and Rescue with AAV-mediated Gene Therapy

Fifty percent of the energy consumed by brain cells is expended by a cellular pump called the sodium-potassium (chemical symbols: Na/K) ATPase pump. This pump, critical for maintaining the integrity and function of brain cells, is vulnerable to malfunction under stress associated with conditions such as epilepsy and stroke, and others, including alternating hemiplegia of childhood (AHC). AHC is a severe disorder causing paralysis, spasms, and epileptic seizures. It is caused by a genetic mutation that codes for a protein in the pump. Using a mouse model with the most common AHC mutation and the disorder, the team will investigate the cell circuitry regulating the pump mechanism. The team will next attempt to use gene therapy to correct the malfunction in the mouse model, which may lead to new therapies for humans with AHC, epilepsy, and related conditions.


Drs. Yiyang Gong (Biomedical Engineering), Jinghao Lu, Fan Wang, and Diming Zhang (Neurobiology)

Title: Building a Fiber-integrated Microscope System for Two-color Optogenetic Probing of Ensemble Activity in Freely Behaving Animals

Every thought or movement made by our brains requires many neurons. To understand even basic brain function, we must be able to record the activity of many neurons at once. This project will use the techniques of optogenetics and optical engineering to allow researchers to see neurons while they are active. Thus far, this team has developed a mini-microscope that can visualize one type of neurons at a time in awake and moving mice. The next step requires examining multiple types of neurons interacting together.

Duke Receives NIH Funds to Study Children with Autism and ADHD

Autism researchers

Duke researchers will lead a $12.5 million, five-year program to study connections between autism and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joining five other universities as a National Institutes of Health Autism Center of Excellence.

Having both autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADHD can lead to more severe autism symptoms in young children, including tantrums, greater challenges at school and trouble making friends. There is little research on the estimated half of individuals with ASD who also have ADHD.

“Young children with autism who also have ADHD are diagnosed with autism at a much later age and have poorer outcomes,” said Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., a co-principal investigator for the grant and director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. “Children with both conditions are 30 times more likely to receive a diagnosis of autism after age 6, which is a shame because we are able to diagnose autism reliably by 24 months. We want to understand why these children are being missed and help them get early interventions.”

Young children with autism who also have ADHD are diagnosed with autism at a much later age and have poorer outcomes. We want to understand why these children are being missed and help them get early interventions.

Duke researchers across disciplines—including psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, engineering, computer science and public policy—will launch three major projects designed to improve early detection and treatment of children with autism and ADHD.

The first project will follow about 9,000 infants and toddlers visiting Duke primary care clinics to identify those with symptoms of ASD, ADHD or both. They will compare symptoms, progression and overall health outcomes and test new screening tools. They will also probe racial and ethnic disparities in early diagnosis and strategies to reduce them.

A second effort will focus on understanding how brain dysfunction in ASD and ADHD are similar and how they differ. Researchers aim to identify signatures in brain activity or attention-related biomarkers that could predict risk for autism and ADHD in infancy.

The third project will evaluate a treatment that combines behavioral intervention and the use of Adzenys-XR-ODT, an FDA-approved ADHD drug. The researchers will study how the combined treatment affects autism and ADHD symptoms and patterns of brain activity.

We are grateful to NIH and to Duke for providing the opportunity to make a real difference both for families in our community and families everywhere.

“This research has the potential to significantly impact clinical practice,” said Scott Kollins, Ph.D., co-principal investigator for the grant and director of the Duke ADHD Program. “We hope it will validate new approaches to early screening, specifically in pediatric primary care. It will also provide many children in North Carolina who have autism and ADHD with diagnostic and treatment services. We are grateful to NIH and to Duke for providing the opportunity to make a real difference both for families in our community and families everywhere.”

Data from Duke and all other Autism Centers of Excellence are included in a centralized NIH National Database for Autism Research, available to scientists and institutions around the world working to uncover the causes and develop the best treatments for ASD.

In addition to Dawson and Kollins (both pictured above), Duke investigators leading the projects include Linmarie Sikich, Guillermo Sapiro, Scott Compton, Kenneth Dodge, Naomi Davis and Michael Murias.

Originally posted on Duke Health. Dawson is chair of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) Faculty Governance Committee and a Bass Connections team leader.

Interdisciplinary Research Teams to Present Results at Bass Connections Showcase

Join the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and the Bass Connections Student Advisory Council for a special year-end showcase event and reception on Thursday, April 20, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Come learn more about Bass Connections and find out what these research teams of faculty, grad students, undergrads and community partners have accomplished this year.


Reception and poster session begin


Students from five project teams will present lightning talks:


Bass Connections leaders will recognize this year’s student award recipients:


Reception and poster session continue


Free parking is available in the Blue Zone accessed from the Towerview Road traffic circle. Please contact us if you require other parking arrangements.


Duke Center for Genomic and Computational Biology (GCB), Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity (DCORE), Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI), Duke Initiative for Science & Society, Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS), Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, Energy Initiative, Franklin Humanities Institute (FHI), Information Initiative at Duke (iiD), Kenan Institute for Ethics, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Social Science Research Institute (SSRI)