Dr. Valentin Dragoi
Dr. Valentin Dragoi

When challenged to put a man on the moon or decode the human genome, scientists in the United States rose to the occasion. They are now being challenged to unlock the mysteries of the brain.

The scientists enlisted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to pave the way for innovative treatments for brain disorders include Dr. Valentin Dragoi, professor of neurobiology and anatomy at McGovern Medical School.

“If you don’t know how your car works and it stops, how are you going to fix it?” asked Dragoi, who is the holder of the Levit Family Professorship in the Neurosciences at UTHealth. “Likewise you can’t understand dysfunctions of the brain if you don’t know how the normal brain functions.”

Dragoi was awarded a three-year, $2.8 million grant through the NIH Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative (BRAIN). He is also a principal investigator on a multi-institutional NIH BRAIN grant.

“Our goal is to have Houston at the forefront of brain research in the nation and the world and these recent BRAIN grants are a reflection of the great progress that is being made,” said Dr. John “Jack” Byrne, chair of neurobiology and anatomy, director of the Neuroscience Research Center and June and Virgil Waggoner Chair at UTHealth.

The initiative was launched in April of 2013 to accelerate the development of new technologies designed to further the understanding of how the brain processes, stores and uses large amounts of information.

The hope is that this information will lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, depression and traumatic brain injury. More than 5 million people in the United States may have Alzheimer’s disease.

“The human brain is the most complicated biological structure in the known universe,” said NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins. “We’ve only scratched the surface in understanding how it works – or, unfortunately, doesn’t quite work – when disorders or disease occur.”

Dragoi’s research is focused on figuring out how nerve cells or neurons share information to influence our thought process. To do this, he observes the activity of neurons when a particular activity is being performed. Even the slightest of tasks involve millions of neurons working in concert.

Dragoi’s recent studies suggest a link between how well neural activity is synchronized and how well a task is learned. Findings appear in the journal eLife.

Dragoi’s $2.8 million NIH grant involves the use of a sophisticated technique to manipulate brain activity involving light. It is called optogenetics and it gives investigators the ability to implant tiny on/off switches in brain cells.

“The switches are activated by light so we can observe behavior when the brain cells are turned on and when they are turned off,” Dragoi. “We can establish cause and effect through this technique.”

Dragoi’s UTHealth collaborators include Dr. John Spudich, of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Dr. Roger Janz, of the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy. Spudich is the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry at UTHealth.

The multi-institutional NIH BRAIN study, supported by $3.7 million over three years, is designed to measure the brain activity of animals freely moving in their natural environment. The other principal investigators are University of Minnesota scientist Dr. Paul Schrater, and Baylor College of Medicine researchers Drs. Dora Angelaki, and Xaq Pitkow.

“We’ll be able to monitor the brain activity of 1,000 neurons at a time, which is a tenfold increase in the number of neurons normally monitored,” Dragoi said. “In addition, we’ll be able to examine the brain in naturalistic conditions while animals interact with their environment. This constitutes a transformative approach that will change the way in which neuroscience will be performed in the future.”

Dragoi’s NIH grant proposal was prepared with the assistance of a $50,000 seed grant from the UTHealth BRAIN initiative. “The purpose of these grants is to help scientists further develop their research projects,” Byrne said.

Dragoi said, “The UTHealth BRAIN initiative brings researchers together for large projects that will become eligible for NIH funding.”

Byrne, Dragoi, Janz and Spudich are on the faculty of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston.

“The brain is one of the last frontiers to conquer,” Dragoi said. “You’ve already seen the great progress in space research and genetics. It’s time for the brain.”

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U01MH109146. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.