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University of Iowa News Release


Nov. 6, 2007

UI biologist uses $1.47 million NIH grant to study brain cell connections

Joshua Weiner, a biologist at the University of Iowa, has received a five-year, $1.47 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to study how neurons in the brain are wired together.

Weiner, who is assistant professor and Presidential Biological Scholar in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Science Department of Biological Sciences, says he will use the grant to study defects in nerve cell connecting points, called synapses, that are believed to underlie a wide range of debilitating neurological and psychiatric disorders, including autism, Alzheimer's disease, mental retardation and schizophrenia.

"What my lab would really like to understand is how, during brain development, nerve cells, called neurons, establish connections with each other," he says. "In particular, we're fascinated by the exquisite specificity with which these cells form synapses. Neurons 'know' how to wire up with each other in the correct patterns needed for the brain to process information."

He adds that researchers have long understood that proteins on the surface of neurons act as a kind of "molecular Velcro" to hold synapses together. He notes also that a particular family of proteins, called gamma-protocadherin, is a great candidate for mediating such synaptic adhesion in a specific way because the proteins are so diverse, with different neurons having various arrangements of some 22 proteins.

"We had already shown that gamma-protocadherins are critical for the development of the nervous system," he says. "In our new, NIH-funded work, we will determine their function in a number of identified circuits, which will help us get a handle on their possible role in synaptic specificity."

His UI colleagues on the project are Andrew Garrett, neuroscience doctoral student; Tuhina Prasad, biology doctoral student; and Leah Fuller, research assistant.

Weiner, who received his doctorate from the University of California in 1999 and joined the UI faculty in 2004, says he hopes that their work will advance public health by contributing to the basic science foundation needed for the development of new therapeutic approaches to neurological and psychiatric disorders.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Joshua Weiner, UI Department of Biological Sciences, 319-335-0091,; Gary Galluzzo, University News Services, 319-384-0009,