Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Gilad Barnea was recently awarded a EUREKA grant — $1.3 million in funding for scientific research over four years — by the National Institutes of Health.
The NIH awards the EUREKA grant to scientists pursuing "high-risk, high-reward" research. In addition to being a relatively new grant — it debuted in 2007 — the EUREKA grant is distinct from more conservative scientific funding in that it primarily seeks to fund research that may not achieve its intended aims, but has the potential for major impact, Barnea said.
Barnea's research will attempt to establish a way to monitor the activation of chemical receptors in the brain, with an eye toward improving treatments for neurological disorders. In particular, he will look at neurochemicals that have multiple receptors, he said.
One such chemical is dopamine — the primary focus of Barnea's research — a neurotransmitter with five receptors that regulates a host of biological processes, including cognition, emotion, motivation and locomotion. Dopamine deficiencies, which express themselves in a variety of disorders — schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, Parkinson's disease and addiction, among others — can be difficult to treat, Barnea said.
Pharmacological treatments are often imperfect because they can affect extraneous receptors, he said.
If Barnea's research is successful, there could be broad implications for the treatment of neurological disorders. Having a more definitive understanding of how specific chemical receptors become activated, Barnea said, will "hopefully lead to more specific drugs" — drugs that are more effective with fewer side effects.
Barnea hopes success with dopamine research will lead to expanded research on "other members of the G-protein coupled receptor family," a group of receptors for a variety of hormones and neurochemicals with multiple receptors, such as serotonin, melatonin, histamine and adrenaline.
From there, Barnea said, the implications are vast. Such research could begin to provide more exact and effective treatment options for a range of disorders including hypertension, asthma, allergies, ulcers and cancer.
Before he received the grant, Barnea's research sought a method to label neural circuits to "understand the logic used by the brain to process olfactory information," he said. This initial research led to the idea for the method he is trying to develop with the grant to study the dopamine receptors.