Michael Fox, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, was recently named a 2015 NARSAD Independent Investigator.

Awarded by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation under the acronym of its former name, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, the honor comes with a two-year grant. The foundation aims to recognize and support the work of the brightest and best minds in brain research.

“This award is especially meaningful because my team has pushed an unconventional research idea forward for almost a decade,” said Fox, also an associate professor of biological sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science. “Now, a board of highly respected neuroscientists have examined our work and agreed that this is an important step forward.”

The research proposal is contentious in the field because it goes against what most neuroscientists were taught long ago, Fox said. It was widely believed that the brain does not contain extracellular matrix molecules like collagen, the protein that makes up most connective tissues in animals, including humans. Fox has hypothesized that the brain actually does contain collagen, but a different kind than what comprises tendons and ligaments – an idea that grew out of the observation that many patients suffering from collagen-related diseases also display neurological deficits.

“Years ago we discovered a handful of nonfibrillar collagens that contribute to synapse formation in the peripheral nervous system,” Fox said. “Now, we also think that these collagens could influence how specific connections form in the developing brain.”

The connection is a specific inhibitory synapse that halts the chain of information in the brain when needed. When this type of synapse is defective and fails to stop the communication, it can contribute to several developmental disorders, Fox said, including autism spectrum disorders, epilepsy, and schizophrenia.

“This connection is made by a group of molecules telling another group of molecules how to build a synapse,” Fox said. “If one molecule is missing, the instructions will go awry.”

Fox’s preliminary studies have proved his hunch right. Fox and his team found that a non-fribrillar collagen – called collagen XIX – is highly expressed in the space between cells when inhibitory synapses form during development. Transgenic mice without this collagen exhibit behaviors associated with developmental disorders.

“The preliminary data are strong,” Fox said. “With this grant, we’ll continue to expand our understanding of how these extracellular matrix molecules contribute to circuit formation in the brain. Our hope is that these studies will not only shed novel light onto the mechanisms of brain development and complex brain disease, but will also lead to novel therapeutics aimed at regenerating malformed or dysfunctional inhibitory synapses.”

“A NARSAD award is one of the highest distinctions in the field of mental health research, supporting some of the best researchers and their ideas in brain research,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “This is a major recognition for Dr. Fox, and it is very well deserved.”

Written by Ashley WennersHerron.

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