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UTHSC team wins $2.13 million NINDS award to study early neuron development

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has awarded $2.13 million to a University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) team studying how neural cells that build a functional brain are generated during embryonic and neonatal life. Viktor Chizhikov, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, is the principal investigator. Igor Iskusnykh, PhD, instructor in the same department, contributed significantly to the project.

During brain development, different types of neurons must be produced in appropriate proportions in order for healthy neural circuits to be formed. Research suggests that disorders such as autism may be caused by these scaling processes gone awry. But little is known about the machinery that scales the number of functionally related neurons in the brain.

In this study, Dr. Chizhikov’s team aims to define the molecular mechanisms that regulate early neuron development, using the cerebellum in an animal model. The team will work to answer questions such as, what genes coordinate the growth and movement of neuron progenitors? How are these genes regulated during normal brain development? What signaling pathways are involved in neural cell growth and production? How does the machinery that controls neuronal growth get disrupted in patients with brain overgrowth disorders?

Answering these questions may help future research pinpoint where and when neural scaling goes off course, which will have a large impact on understanding autism and other developmental brain disorders, and our ability to develop new treatments.

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