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DIBS Announces 2021-2022 Incubator Awards

The Duke Institute for Brain Sciences is once again funding an excellent slate of collaborative, interdisciplinary projects that have great promise to generate significant advancement in our knowledge of brain science.

Four Incubator Awards will support interdisciplinary teams working on research on topics ranging from school-based strategies to cope with systemic racism to the way our brains process visual information.  Incubator Awards require at least two faculty participants from different departments or areas of research and must make a significant, interdisciplinary contribution to the brain sciences.

Four Germinator Awards will support individuals and smaller teams working on projects ranging from aggression in female lemurs to the role of the microbiome in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).  Germinator Awards are available to graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, medical residents and faculty from any department, and must also make a significant contribution to the brain sciences. 

This year’s group awardees represent 10 different departments and institutes from across the School of Medicine, Pratt School of Engineering, and Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.  Descriptions of funded projects are listed below.

2021 Incubator Award Investigators

Incubator Award Project Synopses

Marc Sommer, Biomedical Engineering

Greg Field, Neurobiology

Seeing things differently: Retinal contributions to attention disorders

An estimated 253 million people in the world are visually impaired. An additional 129 million are estimated to have attention-related disorders including ADHD and autism. While great strides are being taken to treat the negative symptoms of these conditions, there is a fundamental lack of knowledge about the neural circuit dysfunctions that cause to them. Our team has developed viral-based technologies that allow us to study the structure and function of a subset of cells in the retina that connects to a structure in the brain called the superior colliculus, an area that helps to select where to look as we examine a visual scene. The viruses that we have developed will deliver genes to these cells in the retina. The genes will allow us to determine the cell types and what visual information they send to the superior colliculus. Our approach holds the potential to provide treatments for maladies ranging from blindness to ADHD to autism.

Katherine Martucci, Anesthesiology

Kathryn Dickerson, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

Alison Adcock, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

Exploring Human Ventral Tegmental Area Response Under Altered Opioid States

About 1 in every 3 people experiences chronic pain. Treatments are often not effective. Opioid medications can treat patients who have chronic pain, but come with risks of addiction and overdose. Therefore, new brain science research is needed to help doctors understand how brain activity changes in patients who take opioids for chronic pain. In this project we will use functional MRI (fMRI) scans to measure midbrain activity in patients with chronic pain who take opioids. Midbrain activity will be measured right after taking their opioid medication (when the drug is most effective) and right before they are due for their next opioid medication dose (when the drug is least effective or has worn off). Through this research, we hope to better understand how opioid medications change brain activity. Ultimately, this research will lead to new and effective treatments for chronic pain and addiction.

Court Hull, Neurobiology

Nicole Calakos, Neurology

Capture of cerebellar learning-dependent ensembles using SPOTlight

To understand how the brain learns, we need to link changes in behavior with specific cellular mechanisms. In recent decades, great progress has been made revealing the signaling events that brain cells use during learning. This process, “synaptic plasticity” provides the foundation for nearly all forms of learning and memory. However, while we know that synaptic plasticity exists, the ability to identify which cells are undergoing plasticity and when during learning represents a major gap in the field. One promising inroad has been through technology that “tags” a cell if it engages in plasticity. In this project, we will pilot a new technology to capture cells undergoing plasticity using a reporter we recently developed, “SPOTlight,” in animals that are experiencing a well-established form of motor learning. Our results may provide the very first glimpse into which cells are activated during motor learning, filling a significant gap in our understanding of learning, as well as introducing a powerful tool for the neuroscience field.

Timothy Strauman, Psychology & Neuroscience

Ann Brewster, Social Sciences Research Institute

Ernestine Briggs, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

Simon Davis, Neurology

Structural Racism and Adolescent Mental Health: A Metacognition-Based Preventive Intervention

It is well-known that systemic structural racism (SSR) increases risk for mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. This project takes an interdisciplinary, brain-focused approach to preventing these disorders among high school students who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latino/a, and Persons of Color (BIPOC), especially those who are “at risk” for dropping out of school.  In many school settings, interventions targeting “at-risk” students carry stigma and are perceived as irrelevant or punitive. In contrast, trauma-informed, culturally-relevant interventions that promote positive development in real-life situations can achieve prevention in ways that adolescents find engaging. Through collaboration with Durham Public Schools, we have encouraging pilot data teaching “metacognitive strategies” --techniques to observe and evaluate one’s mental processes and their consequences--to high school students who are deemed “at-risk” because they have received a long-term suspension. In this project, we will assess critical brain processes before and after teaching the metacognitive strategies. We hope to learn whether those skills can reduce distress, and prevent depression/anxiety, and promote retention in school.  Along the way, we hope to help these students gain greater control over their responses to experiences of structural racism.