The brain is composed of hundreds of billions of neurons. Even a small disruption in these cells and their connections can lead to devastating neurological effects, such as autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Alzheimer’s disease.

To better understand mechanisms underlying these diseases and disorders, researchers at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute are forming the Developmental and Translational Neurobiology Center.

Led by Michael Fox, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, the center will enhance existing strengths in cell and molecular neuroscience at the institute and create a collaborative community for scientists studying the underlying genetic, molecular, and cellular mechanisms of neurodevelopment and neurodegenerative diseases.

“Researchers in the center will focus on exploring how connections between neural cells and their environment contribute to development, normal behavior, and disease” said Fox, who is also an associate professor of biological sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science.

Four scientists already conducting research at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute will join Fox within the center, including Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and the founding executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute; Alexei Morozov, an assistant professor at both the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences; and Konark Mukherjee and Gregorio Valdez, both assistant professors at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and in the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech’s College of Science.

A unifying theme in these researchers’ programs is the study of how the brain is wired and how the connections change during normal development, in aging, in disease, and following neuro-trauma.

“Diseases that affect the brain are devastating and create enormous social, emotional, and economic burdens on our society. It’s critical for us to understand how the brain develops and changes throughout the lifespan, so that we have the knowledge and tools to create novel strategies to repair diseased or damaged brains,” Fox said. “Gaining this fundamental knowledge is no easy task, and the more world-class labs working together on neurodevelopment disorders, neurodegenerative disorders, and neuro-repair, the better our chances at novel discoveries that will impact human health.”

The center’s objectives are in line with areas already identified for future growth at the Virginia Tech Carilion Health Sciences and Technology Campus in the Roanoke Innovation Corridor,  including its brain health and disease thematic area. According to Fox, the center will also build upon the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute’s cognitive-computational neuroscience programs, the work of the School of Neuroscience in Virginia Tech’s College of Science, and the university’s adaptive brain and behavior destination area.

Fox said that beyond recruiting additional faculty to grow the center, he hopes to also provide more hands-on research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students on the Roanoke campus.

“We will work with other centers and units within the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and across Virginia Tech to propel experimental research approaches and collaborative studies,” Fox said. “We’re about to go through another phase of growth, and building upon some of our existing strength is important.”

The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute has had three major focus areas since its inception, including cardiovascular science, infectious disease-immunity, and neuroscience. Two major groups exist within the neuroscience area: the cognitive-computational group that primarily studies areas of human cognition, decision-making, and related disorders; and the molecular-cellular neurobiology group, which primarily studies the biological underpinnings of brain development, function, and neurodegenerative disease. 

“It all comes together operationally in the processes of real living brains and behavior,” said Friedlander. “This new center formalizes the structure and importance of the cellular and molecular part of the enterprise, and we are extremely fortunate to have the world-class development molecular neurobiologist Mike Fox at the helm. He has an outstanding record of training, scholarly achievement, and mentorship of students and junior faculty.”

Written by Logan Quesenbery

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