Pitt to develop center to study the brain

Medical school, university commit $45 million to project

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When President Barack Obama announced $100 million supporting the BRAIN Initiative in April, brain research was characterized as a science thriller involving "a journey into the unknown" to solve "a central mystery."

At that time, the University of Pittsburgh already was planning its own journey into the interior terrain of brain function with its ambitious goal of performing "high-risk, high-impact neuroscience that will transform lives."

On Monday, the university announced creation of its Brain Institute, comprising five centers of study, all designed to help "unlock the mysteries of normal and abnormal brain function." The institute will focus on fundamental research necessary to take the next step in developing treatments for such brain disorders as Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, Parkinson's disease, traumatic brain injury and autism, among others.

The institute will not treat patients. UPMC eventually would be responsible to test treatments through clinical trials.

The first research focus would involve understanding how different specialized brain cells -- neurons -- make up brain networks that control cognition, behavior, learning and other brain functions. Understanding normal function can shed light on how to treat abnormalities.

"We've lost the notion that we have to fund foundational research, so the Brain Institute is intended to do both foundational and translational research," said the institute's founding scientific director Peter L. Strick, chairman of Pitt's department of neurobiology.

Current funding sources largely have de-emphasized fundamental research, making it difficult to determine how and why abnormalities occur. Such understanding, Mr. Strick said, is a necessary step in translational research, which translates basic science into treatments.

The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is providing $30 million while the university itself is adding $15 million for the institute, said Mr. Strick, who holds a doctoral degree in anatomy. Among his many roles, including operating his own research lab, he will work to raise $120 million, with discussions already underway with a potential donor.

The institute will consist of these five centers:

* A NeuroTech Center will work to restore movement to people with paralysis and vision to those with blindness, and to develop new technology-based treatment approaches for motor and cognitive disorders.

* A NeuroGenetics Center will develop non-human primate models of developmental, psychiatric and degenerative disorders to accelerate development of new cures and treatments.

* A NeuroMapping Center will try to unravel the complex circuitry and patterns that are the bases of human activities including movement, cognition, emotion, learning, language and creativity. One goal is understanding the mind-body connection.

* A NeuroLearning Center will study the biological bases of learning and memory.

* A NeuroDiscovery Center will support innovative, multidisciplinary and high-risk/high-reward neuroscience research. Mr. Strick said the famous Bell Labs will serve as a model, where scientists were brought together under a philosophy of thinking outside the box and pursuing creative lines of research.

Bell Lab scientists, a Pitt release states, "created radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, and several new computer languages. In the process they won seven Nobel Prizes."

With Pitt's role already established in groundbreaking research in neuroscience, University of Pittsburgh chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg stated in a news release, "We have the intellectual firepower to take a lead role in the nationwide effort to revolutionize the understanding of the brain."

Initially, researchers will use existing buildings and resources with "the dream for a building to bring everyone together," Mr. Strick said. "At this point, bricks and mortar are last on the list."

Researchers university-wide will play a role, including mathematicians, statisticians, bioengineers and others in the college of arts and sciences. In time the institute will include hundreds of research scientists, he said.

Already Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University operate the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, whose successful operations will continue.

With baby boomers reaching their senior years comes a health crisis of brain and psychiatric disorders, accenting the need to understand brain biology, Mr. Strick said.

"The basic science and the translational research fostered by the Brain Institute are the critical first steps that must be taken to meet this challenge."

David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578. First Published January 13, 2014 11:22 AM

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