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Stanford received high praise this summer when it ranked first in the world for influential research in neuroscience. But this month those accolades have been topped by the news that eight Medical Center researchers have been chosen by the National Institute of Mental Health to be part of a Silvio Conte Center for Neuroscience Research.

The Center, one of only three in the country, will provide approximately $8 million of support over the next five years for research toward a better understanding of the basic underpinnings of learning, memory and other vital brain functions.

The new neuroscience centers are named for the late Silvio O. Conte, former U.S. Representative of Massachusetts. Conte, who recognized the accomplishments of neuroscience research and the potential for new prevention and treatments for brain and behavioral disorders, introduced legislation to declare the 1990s the Decade of the Brain.

"In designating this as the 'Decade of the Brain,' the Congress of the United States has recognized the explosive growth of knowledge in the field of neuroscience and its enormous potential for practical application in the field of mental health," said principal investigator Dr. Richard Tsien. "It is sobering in this light to realize how little we know about how the brain works."

The Stanford Center's research will focus primarily on synapses, the tiny gaps between adjoining nerve cells that allow them to communicate signals throughout the body, explained Tsien, George D. Smith Professor and Chairman of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology. Certain long-lasting changes in the function of synapses are thought to be essential for learning and memory in the brains of mammals.

"Although research will center around synaptic plasticity," said Tsien, "it will go all the way from ion channel studies of the kind that was just honored for the Nobel Prize in medicine, to work that approaches the systems level."

One major research focus of the Center will be on a process called long-term potentiation (LTP). This is a phenomenon in which, after receiving a short burst of intense activity, the synapse is changed in a way that improves communication between the cells. The researchers will test the theory that this process is controlled by two way communication between the cell sending the message--the presynaptic cell--and the cell receiving the message--known as the postsynaptic cell. They suspect that the synaptic changes can be understood in terms of the chemicals and molecules that send and receive messages. In addition, some of the research projects will look for common mechanisms that control a variety of activities among nerve cells.

The questions that will be addressed by these researchers could be studied with the support of individual grants, but much more powerful and multidisciplinary approaches will be possible within the framework of the Center, explained Tsien. "Although the group is unified by common interests in closely related questions, the individual investigators represent a diversity of backgrounds and intellectual approaches. Together, they bring to the Center a wide array of expertise and experimental techniques."

A list of the new Center's investigators and their research interests follows the asterisks.

  • * * * * * * * * *
  • Principal investigator Dr. Richard Tsien has a long- standing interest in cellular and molecular signalling in neurons, with interests spanning over most of the projects that will be carried out by the new Center. He is known for studies on calcium ion channels and LTP.
  • Co-principal investigator Dr. Richard Scheller has contributed to understanding how genes determine behavior and to understanding the molecules involved in cell to cell interactions and the development of synapses.
  • Dr. Stephen Smith, associate professor of molecular and cellular physiology, has developed innovative approaches to the cell biology of brain cells. He recently reported finding a previously unrecognized signalling role for a group of brain cells called astrocytes.
  • Dr. Carla Shatz, formerly a principal member of Stanford's neurobiology department, will participate in the Center from her new position at UC Berkeley. She has been a pioneer in understanding how the visual system develops.
  • Dr. Thomas Schwarz, assistant professor of molecular and cellular physiology, has expertise in understanding the molecular basis of excitability in nerve and muscle. He has made discoveries related to ion channels--the gated pores that control the flow of ions into and out of nerve cells.
  • Dr. Howard Schulman, associate professor of pharmacology, is a biochemist and pharmacologist who will look at processes of cellular and molecular signalling from a view different from many of the other investigators. He has been a leader in the study of nerve cell responses to hormones, drugs, and other chemical messengers.
  • Dr. Daniel Madison, assistant professor of molecular and cellular physiology, has contributed to understanding how chemical messengers in the nervous system, known as neurotransmitters, modulate the firing of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
  • Dr. Richard Aldrich, associate professor of molecular and cellular physiology, has made major contributions to the field of ion channel function and structure.


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