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University of Iowa News Release


Dec. 22, 2008

UI brain researchers win major neuroscience award

It's relatively easy to get a pH reading (measure of acidity) of your garden soil. Not so with the human brain, where pH changes are involved in normal neurological activity and also brain injury and diseases.

However, that may change, thanks to an award from the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience to University of Iowa scientists who plan to develop imaging techniques to measure and understand the influence of pH on normal brain function and disease.

John Wemmie, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and neurosurgery at the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and a staff physician and researcher at the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center, has received a three-year, $300,000 McKnight Neuroscience of Brain Disorders Award. One of only six such awards given this year, the funding supports innovative efforts aimed at translating basic laboratory discoveries in neuroscience into clinical benefits for patients.

Wemmie and co-principal investigator Vincent Magnotta, Ph.D., UI associate professor of radiology, psychiatry and biomedical engineering, will use the funding to develop magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-based strategies to accurately and non-invasively measure pH in mouse and human brains, and apply those techniques to investigate changes in brain acidity during fear responses. Magnotta also is a member of the Iowa Institute for Biomedical Imaging.

Normal neurological activity, and also brain injury and disease, produce fluctuations in brain tissue acidity. These pH changes occur rapidly and may be relatively small, making them difficult to monitor. Recent studies, including research from Wemmie's lab, have used animal models to identify acid-sensing ion channels as key players in anxiety disorders, stroke, seizures and multiple sclerosis.

"It is possible that this pH signaling system involving brain acidity and acid-sensing proteins could be enabling or contributing to the development of panic disorder and anxiety disorders," Wemmie said. "So, if we can monitor the pH signal it might provide an opportunity to intervene in these disorders.

"The ability to monitor local pH changes in the brain could also be useful for early detection and mapping of affected regions in stroke and multiple sclerosis -- diseases where acidic pH might be one of the earliest and very salient indicators of risk and damage," he added.

The new study will focus on the role of pH in anxiety, fear responses and memory. Magnotta's expertise in developing imaging protocols for psychiatric studies will help the team investigate whether findings from Wemmie's mouse studies on fear behavior are also observed during anxiety-provoking protocols in people.

Wemmie notes that if the study is successful, the research could lead to news ways to diagnose, monitor, and treat psychiatric and neurological illnesses.

The McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience is an independent organization funded solely by The McKnight Foundation of Minneapolis, Minn., and led by a board of prominent neuroscientists from around the country. The McKnight Foundation has supported neuroscience research since 1977. The Foundation established the Endowment Fund in 1986 to carry out the intentions of founder William L. McKnight (1887 - 1978). One of the early leaders of 3M Company, McKnight had a personal interest in memory and its diseases and wanted part of his legacy used to help find cures.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Health Science Relations, 5135 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-1178

CONTACT: Jennifer Brown, 319-335-9917