Neuroscience initiative aims to get inside your head

An estimated 50 million Americans will be affected by a neurological disease this year. And without a response from the scientific community, the challenge could get steeper: dementia rates are projected to triple in the next 40 years as Baby Boomers age.

“If we’re going to make progress we need to put additional science to work,” said Michael G. Perri, Ph.D., dean of the University of Florida’s College of Public Health and Health Professions.

That’s why the university has made a $2.2 million investment in attracting top neuroscience researchers as part of UF’s efforts to raise its national standing and its impact on the world. The “Neuroscience and the Brain” initiative is the second-largest of UF Rising’s 26 research areas, and Perri brought together the participation of the colleges of Medicine, Public Health and Health Professions, Engineering, and Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as the McKnight Brain Institute and several research centers.

Perri and his colleagues believe that with key faculty hires, UF will become a leading institution of cutting-edge brain research and play a major role in the federal Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN, Initiative, which is expected to award grants that will total billions of dollars over the next 10 years.

Neuroscience research took a major leap forward in 2013 with the launch of the BRAIN Initiative. The federal effort supports the development of new technologies to produce dynamic images of brain function with the eventual goal of treating, curing and preventing brain disorders.

In announcing the initiative, President Barack Obama called it “the next great American project.”

“As humans, we can identify galaxies light years away, we can study particles smaller than an atom. But we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” he said.

UF has extensive neuroscience expertise and infrastructure, most notably through the McKnight Brain Institute, one of the nation’s most comprehensive and technologically advanced centers devoted to understanding how the brain works. More than 300 UF faculty members from 10 colleges are conducting research in areas such as age-related memory loss, brain cancer, central nervous system injury, neurorehabilitation, mental health, and neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy.

UF is particularly interested in hiring 10 to 12 scientists in three strategic areas where existing expertise, combined with the talents of the new faculty members, could have the greatest impact on treatment advances. The first is neuroimaging and mapping, which involves capturing real-time images of the brain to better understand its structure and function. Researchers working in therapeutic and biomarker discovery will develop and test new treatments that may include gene therapy and medications. A third research area focuses on designing rehabilitation strategies that draw upon the brain and nervous system’s ability to adopt new functions or reorganize existing ones following injury or disease.

With the pieces in place, UF can accelerate research on several conditions, including age-related cognitive decline and neurological diseases that cause memory deterioration. And time is of the essence for the tens of millions of Americans and their families whose lives could be improved through a better understanding of how to protect and treat the brain.

For more information on UF’s preeminence initiatives, visit UF Rising.