Researchers Drs. Nicholas Justice, left, and Qingchun Tong were among eight faculty members awarded seed grants for neuroscience research.
Researchers Drs. Nicholas Justice, left, and Qingchun Tong were among eight faculty members awarded seed grants for neuroscience research.

Imagine what a boon it would be for people with a life-threatening weight problem if basic scientists could develop a way to help control the occasional urge to overeat.

The innovative hunger research of Dr. Qingchun Tong, is one of eight projects at McGovern Medical School that have been singled out for funding through the new UTHealth BRAIN initiative.

The grants provide $50,000 per year for up to two years and are designed to develop the fundamental insights necessary for treating brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy and traumatic brain injury.

Dr. Jack Byrne, professor and chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, and director of the Neuroscience Research Center at UTHealth Medical School, described the awards as seed grants to help the scientists further develop their research projects.

Afterward, the hope is that these researchers will submit their projects for funding through a federal neuroscience initiative called the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies or BRAIN for short.

Byrne, the June and Virgil Waggoner Chair at UTHealth, said, “We in the neuroscience program are very grateful for the support of UTHealth President Giuseppe Colasurdo for our research.”

The UTHealth seed grant program is managed by the Neuroscience Research Center and the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences, which is operated by UTHealth, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.

Tong, an associate professor and holder of the Becker Family Foundation Professorship in Diabetes Research, said, “The current therapeutic drugs against obesity are not successful and have limited efficacy. One major reason is the need for a better understanding of how the brain controls feeding and energy expenditure.”

Tong, whose laboratory is in the Center for Metabolic and Degenerative Diseases at The Brown Foundation Institute for Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases (IMM), is working to identify the signaling cascades or pathways that relay the signals for feeding and energy expenditure.

“One day this information could aid in the development of specific, more effective drugs with limited side effects,” he said.

Dr. Nicholas Justice, one of Tong’s colleagues in the Center for Metabolic and Degenerative Diseases, received a seed grant to further the understanding of anxiety-related diseases.

“Faulty regulation of stress hormones underlies many anxiety-related diseases including depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and insomnia,” said Justice, an assistant professor. “This project is focused on measuring changes in the regulation of genes in hypothalamic neurons that initiate the release of stress hormones. We are using genetic labeling and next-generation sequencing platforms to assay expression changes of the complete transcriptome in corticotropin-releasing factor neurons.”

Justice’s co-investigator is Dr. Jeffrey Chang, assistant professor of integrative biology and pharmacology.

Here are the six other principal investigators and their co investigators.

  • Dr. Valentin Dragoi, professor of neurobiology and anatomy and holder of the Levit Family Professorship in Neurosciences, and co-investigator Dr. Roger Janz, associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy, are conducting a project titled “New optogenetic tools for dissecting large-scale neuronal circuits in animals.”
  • Dr. David Marshak, professor of neurobiology and anatomy, and co-investigator Dr. Stephen Mills, professor of ophthalmology and visual science, are conducting a project titled “Structure and function of G5 retinal ganglion cells: A connectomics approach.” Mills holds the John P. McGovern, M.D. Distinguished Professorship in Ophthalmology.
  • Dr. John Redell, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy, and his co-investigators Dr. Pramod Dash, professor of neurobiology and anatomy, and Dr. Badri Roysam,  University of Houston Electrical and Computer Engineering, are performing a study called “Characterizing disruptions in neural circuit connectivity after mild traumatic brain injury.” Dash is the holder of the Nina and Michael Zilkha Distinguished Chair in Neurodegenerative Disease Research
  • Dr. Christophe Ribelayga, assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual science, and co-principal investigator Dr. Jia Wu, assistant professor of neurosurgery, are conducting an investigation titled “A unique neuron in the retina controls visual contrast sensitivity.”
  • Dr. Claudio Soto, professor of neurology, is doing a project titled “Production of a human cerebral organoid model of Alzheimer’s disease.”
  • Dr. Eric Wagner, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and co-investigator Dash are conducting a project titled “Deciphering a role for 3’UTR length in neural plasticity.”

-Rob Cahill, Office of Public Affairs, Media Relations