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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.


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