Sarah D. Ackerman, Gabor Egervari, MD, PhD and Tao Xie, all of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, have been named 2023 Young Investigator grantees by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. This year’s funding will support 150 promising early-career scientists across the field of neuropsychiatry with innovative ideas in mental health research. The two-year grant is expected to provide up to $70,000 per recipient.
Ackerman, an assistant professor of pathology and immunology affiliated with the Brain Immunology and Glia Center, uses fruit flies to study the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and rewire itself — a process that is flexible during childhood and fades with age. Because glial cells in the brain, called astrocytes, are critical players in this neuronal plasticity, Ackerman’s work aims to leverage such cells to modify plasticity in the adult brain. Her findings have potentially important implications for neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia that involve altered fading of neuronal plasticity.
Egervari, an assistant professor of genetics and of biochemistry and molecular biophysics, studies how harmful substances, such as alcohol, when metabolized by the body, affect the genetic tags that can turn genes up or down without changing the genetic code. These volume knobs control the level of gene activity and play an important role in alcohol use disorder development. The funding may help uncover new therapeutics by understanding how these genetic tags drive voluntary alcohol consumption.
Xie, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Neurosurgery working in the laboratories of Peter Brunner and Jon T. Willie, is studying how the brain processes fear and learns to associate situations with safety. Understanding how the brain reduces fear has implications for helping patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, among other illnesses involving excessive fear responses.