Just as nerve cells don’t work in isolation when we think, speak or move, scientists don’t work alone when they study the nervous system.
A new center at West Virginia University — the Center for Foundational Neuroscience Research and Education — will help researchers from different departments collaborate in a similar way. By teaming up, the researchers will use their skillsets and backgrounds to make neuroscience discoveries that might take much longer otherwise.
The hope is to be able to find new ways to diagnose, treat and cure such things as hearing impairments, movement disorders and dementias.
“Having research projects siloed in different departments, when they’re clearly multidisciplinary, is old-fashioned thinking,” said Randy Nelson, who will direct the center. “It’s unusual to have this sort of cross-campus initiative, but moving forward, I think this is where universities are going.”
Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, especially the brain, and behavior. The center will support and facilitate nonclinical research into neuroscience topics. It will also promote research partnerships — involving both clinical and translational scientists — in pursuit of treatments and cures for neurological disorders.
“WVU is rich in neuroscience researchers, but they’re in different departments scattered throughout the university,” said Nelson, who chairs the School of Medicine’s Department of Neuroscience and directs basic science research for the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.
“The goal is to bring them together, harmonize their efforts and provide some resources for them to make an even stronger impact,” he said. “Working with the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, we will support positions like graphic artists and biostatisticians. We also plan to have grant-writing support, particularly for physicians. The whole goal here is to enhance neuroscience research across the university. We want to increase our impact.”
The center will help WVU secure federal funding that makes program-wide research projects possible. For example, during its first year of operation, the center will prioritize obtaining large federal grants to study neural circuits, a topic that researchers across WVU have expertise in.
Studying the complex connections among neurons, or neural circuits, provides insights into how the brain both develops and functions. For example, improper development of neural circuits in the cerebral cortex is linked to many neurodevelopmental disorders, including schizophrenia and autism. An imbalance of neural-circuit activity is associated with epilepsy.
By studying neural circuits, researchers can find new ways to diagnose, treat and — perhaps — even cure hearing impairments, movement disorders, dementias and other neurological conditions.
“That’ll involve folks at biomedical engineering, people in neurosurgery who do surgery to calm down epilepsy cases, researchers in biology who studied neural circuits in insects and our people in the Neuroscience Department who study neural circuits in terms of sensory, function and development,” Nelson said. “That’s a big place where we can bring those different but related kinds of research programs together to have a very powerful presence in that field.”
He sees similar opportunities for neuroscientists at RNI to work with psychologists and biologists in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences to “forge additional links” and jointly explore topics in behavioral neuroscience, among others.
But faculty won’t be the only researchers who get to “forge links” with each other. The center will also support students in their own research projects. Undergrads, as well as graduate students, will benefit.
“Often, you don’t think of undergrads really doing things in the lab, but in labs across this center, they already do,” Nelson said. “And I think that’s fantastic.”