Pitt Establishes Brain Institute

PITTSBURGH – The University of Pittsburgh is creating a new Institute that aims to unlock the mysteries of normal and abnormal brain function, and then use this new information to develop novel treatments and cures for brain disorders.

The new institute will function like a Bell Labs for brain research and provide a special environment to promote innovation and discovery. The goal is to enable investigators to perform high-risk, high-impact neuroscience that will transform lives.

“Pittsburgh has earned well-deserved respect as one of the world’s leading centers for groundbreaking research in neuroscience,” said University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg.

“We have the intellectual firepower to take a lead role in the nationwide effort to revolutionize the understanding of the brain.  The creation of our Brain Institute reflects the high priority that we have assigned to this important work and will position Pitt for even higher levels of impact and achievement in the years ahead.

“It also will strengthen our ongoing local, national and international research efforts, such as the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, which is a joint program with Carnegie Mellon University.”

According to Arthur S. Levine, M.D., Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine, the Brain Institute will initiate five centers that focus on neurotechnology, neurogenetics, brain mapping, learning and discovery in neuroscience.

The Brain Institute’s mission also includes coordinating strategic planning for further research initiatives and developing and overseeing essential research resources. “The Brain Institute will bring to bear the substantial resources across the University to take on some of the major health and scientific concerns of our time,” Levine said.

“We have the will and the skills to unravel how the brain works, making this a very exciting time to conduct research in neuroscience.”

Pitt has long been at the forefront of neuro-related research. The university is where: Salk developed a vaccine against polio which prevents the virus from damaging the nervous system and causing paralysis; Pittsburgh Compound B was developed for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease; a brain-computer interface first made it possible for a woman with quadriplegia to feed herself by moving a robotic arm with just her thoughts; and new diagnostic tools and imaging methods are being developed to detect concussions and traumatic brain injuries. “The Brain Institute will add to this already remarkable list of achievements,” said Levine.

Last April, President Barack Obama announced the inception of the BRAIN Initiative, describing it as a bold new research effort to revolutionize the understanding of the human mind and address brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. Pitt’s renowned researchers can rise to the challenge, noted Patricia E. Beeson, Ph.D., Pitt provost and senior vice chancellor.

“Our extensive and accomplished community of neuroscientists and physicians is part of a Pitt culture that encourages cooperation and collaboration with colleagues from a variety of disciplines, including bioengineering, communication disorders, computer science, mathematics, neurology, neuroscience, neurosurgery, ophthalmology, otolaryngology, psychiatry, psychology and rehabilitation,” she said. “This breadth of talent and experience makes us ideally suited to take our understanding of brain function to the next level.”

The Brain Institute’s founding scientific director is Peter L. Strick, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and chair, Department of Neurobiology. He is a leading expert on the neural basis of movement and cognition.

Strick pioneered the use of viruses to reveal circuits of interconnected neurons. This technique is widely seen as one of the most powerful approaches yet developed to “map the brain.” His studies provide insights into what goes wrong in a wide range of brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, autism, depression and schizophrenia. Most recently, he has begun to explore the brain connections that form the basis for the mind-body connection.

Strick was recently elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He holds the Endowed Chair in Systems Neuroscience, is co-director of the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition and the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh, and is a Senior Research Career Scientist at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

“The critical task of discovering how the brain develops, how it functions normally, and how to alleviate and cure abnormal function requires a broad, multi-level and multi-disciplinary approach,” Strick said. “In other words, it ‘takes a University.’ I am enormously proud that the University of Pittsburgh has taken on this challenge.”

Initially, five centers will be established at the Brain Institute. They are:

  • A NeuroTech Center to restore movement to the paralyzed and vision to the blind, and to develop new technology-based treatment approaches for motor and cognitive disorders. To do so, the Center will create new tools for long-term recording from and stimulation of populations of neurons in the human brain.
  • NeuroGenetics Center to develop non-human primate models of neurodevelopmental, neuropsychiatric, and neurodegenerative disorders to accelerate the development of new cures and treatments for neural disorders.
  • NeuroMapping Center to unravel the complex circuitry and patterns of activity that are the neural bases of movement, cognition, emotion, learning, language and creativity — in other words, all that makes us human. This Center will be deeply involved in exploring the mind-body connection that is the basis of the emerging field of Health Neuroscience.
  • NeuroLearning Center to study the biological bases of learning and memory, including the brain changes that accompany learning in educational domains, in human development, and in overcoming cognitive impairment.
  • NeuroDiscovery Center, the equivalent of a Bell Labs for neuroscience, to support particularly innovative, multidisciplinary, and high-risk/high-reward neuroscience research.

Currently, there are few effective treatments for most brain disorders, and cures are far from imminent for many chronic and debilitating neurodegenerative and psychiatric diseases.

“As the Baby Boomer population ages, we are facing a health crisis caused by the growing burden of neurologic and neuropsychiatric disease,” 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.”

University of Pittsburgh Neuroscience Research Highlights

The University of Pittsburgh has a long history of research accomplishments and excellence in neuroscience. Pitt’s “open academic architecture,” which promotes an institutional spirit of cooperation and collaboration, enables research interactions to span departments, schools, centers and even extend into neighboring universities. Here are four examples of major advances that have come from research at Pitt:

  • Salk vaccine against polio. Virologist Jonas Salk and his skilled research team at the University of Pittsburgh developed the first vaccine against polio using inactivated virus.  Introduced in 1955, the Salk vaccine was hailed as a miracle in preventing polio, which attacks the brain and spinal cord and can cause disabling paralysis, and even death. Known in the ‘forties and ‘fifties as the “summer scourge,” polio terrified American families as annual epidemics grew increasingly widespread and deadly. Salk led an elaborate field trial to test the vaccine. The trial required 20,000 doctors and public health officers and a quarter of a million volunteers. The vaccine, administered to millions of children over the following decades, contributed to the near eradication of polio in the western hemisphere by 1991.
  • Pittsburgh Compound B for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh developed a radioactive compound in 2008 that enables early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Pittsburgh Compound B (or PiB) was invented and developed by a team of Pitt researchers led by Chester Mathis, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of radiology and pharmaceutical sciences, and William Klunk, M.D., Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of psychiatry and neurology. PiB makes early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease possible and should help clinicians monitor the disease’s progression. PiB works by binding to telltale beta-amyloid plaque deposits found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. These plaques are thought to kill brain cells and their presence differentiates Alzheimer’s disease from other dementias. PiB can be injected into the bloodstream of patients, and specialists can then use imaging with positron emission tomography (PET) to locate the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Before Pittsburgh Compound B, it was only possible to confirm Alzheimer’s disease after a patient’s death at autopsy. PiB has been licensed to GE Healthcare, which recently received approval to market a PiB analog in the United States. Approval for its use in Europe and Asia currently is under regulatory review.
  • Thought-controlled robotic arm for the paralyzed. Jan Scheuermann is a 53-year-old woman whose ability to move below the neck was stolen by a neurodegenerative condition. In 2012, a multi-disciplinary team of researchers at Pitt enabled Jan to feed herself a chocolate bar using a robotic arm that was controlled by signals from her brain. This breakthrough was based on years of basic science research in the laboratory of Andrew Schwartz, Ph.D., Professor of Neurobiology. The team that translated this basic science into a reality also included Michael Boninger, M.D., chair of the Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of neurological surgery, and Jennifer Collinger, Ph.D., assistant professor of  physical medicine & rehabilitation, as well as a host of bioengineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, neurologists, neurophysiologists, neurosurgeons, rehabilitation specialists, roboticists and statisticians at the University of Pittsburgh, and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University. The brain-computer interface used signals that were recorded from two microelectrode arrays – two tiny grids, each with 96 micro-contacts, that were implanted into the surface of Jan’s cerebral cortex. These signals were electronically processed to generate movements of the robotic arm.  In this way, Jan’s thoughts were translated into actions. Jan was able to move the prosthetic arm just two days after the arrays were implanted.
  • High-definition fiber tracking of brain pathways. In 2009, Walter Schneider, Ph.D., Pitt professor of psychology and neurosurgery and Senior Scientist at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, organized an international competition for scientists to improve an existing imaging method that displays brain pathways. Two groups, one in St. Louis and another in the Netherlands, won the competition. Schneider, in collaboration with Pitt neurosurgeons, then further refined the technique that they term High Definition Fiber Tracking (HDFT). HDFT has proven to be especially valuable for visualizing vital fiber tracts to allow them to be preserved during neurosurgical operations and for assessing the integrity of brain pathways following traumatic brain injury.
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