BRAIN-Affiliated Investigators Receive Prestigious HHMI and Lasker Awards

Mouse brain slice with bright green neurons.

The 2021 cohort of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigators includes six BRAIN-funded scientists, while three investigators, including BRAIN Multi-Council Working Group member Karl Deisseroth, were honored with the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for their breakthrough work on optogenetics.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Award and the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award are among the highest honors awarded to investigators in the biomedical sciences.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute Selects New Investigator Cohort

Each year, HHMI names a new cohort of highly innovative investigators with established records of independence, creativity, and demonstrated ability to forge new directions in biomedical science. This year, selections were made from a competitive applicant pool of more than 800 scientists. Five awardees are BRAIN-funded scientists tackling tough questions on brain function and disorders through cutting-edge approaches in genetics, circuit recordings and modulation, and advanced live imaging. These investigators will each receive $9 million over a 7-year period, supporting their freedom to create new research directions and accelerating their potential to make transformative discoveries.

Kafui Dzirasa, M.D., Ph.D. is the K. Ranga Rama Krishnan Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University and member of the BRAIN Multi-Council Working Group (MCWG). His laboratory investigates the role of circuits in the brain that can go awry in psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Through his BRAIN grant, his team is developing a new scalable technology to “functionally” study the geometry of the brain from 3D by biologically projecting it onto a 2D surface that can be imaged in real time.

Cagla Eroglu, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Cell Biology at Duke University, studies how the connectivity of the central nervous system is aided by astrocytes. Recent evidence has demonstrated that astrocytes play active roles in establishing synaptic connections between neurons, the key components of neuronal circuitry. Through her BRAIN grant, her team is developing and applying cutting-edge proteomic and genome editing tools to discover and elucidate the molecular mechanisms that underlie astrocytic control of synaptic connectivity and neurological dysfunction.

To learn more about the work of Drs. Dzirasa and Eroglu, please read the Duke press release.

Chenghua Gu, Ph.D., Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard University, works to understand the cross-talk and coordination between the neural and vascular systems required for proper brain health and function. Her team has already made significant progress to differentiate cell composition and gene expression among vascular and perivascular cells of the somatosensory cortex. Through her BRAIN grant, they are expanding this approach to generate the first comprehensive inventory of vascular and perivascular cells which will accelerate our understanding of neuro-vascular interactions.

Daniel Kronauer, Ph.D., Stanley S. and Sydney R. Shuman Associate Professor at the Rockefeller University, takes an integrative approach to understand how natural selection shapes the evolution of insect societies and how social life is regulated at the level of genes, brains, individuals, and colonies. Through his BRAIN grant, he is developing the first neurogenetic tools in ants, and mapping how the chemosensory system represents social and environmental stimuli in the brain. These results on the modulation of sensory perception may eventually inform our understanding of human disorders involving abnormal sensory sensitivity.

Vanessa Ruta, Ph.D., Gabrielle H. Reem and Herbert J. Kayden Associate Professor at the Rockefeller University, studies the underlying brain circuits that give rise to innate or learned behaviors. Through her BRAIN grant, her team is using Drosophila to reveal how reward and locomotor signals are directly translated to different patterns of dopamine release and engage distinct dopamine receptor signaling cascades to shape circuit processing and behavior. Advances in our understanding of molecular signaling pathways and circuit function will aid in the development of novel therapeutics for neuropsychiatric conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, and addiction.

Mikhail Shapiro, Ph.D., Professor of Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, is developing new methods for deep-brain imaging in live cells. Breaking from conventional light-based imaging techniques, Shapiro’s team are pioneering the use of ultrasound for cellular imaging. Through his BRAIN grants, his team is working to advance functional ultrasound and ultrasonic modulation capabilities to control specific neural circuits, with the goal of establishing a systematic understanding of these technologies for use in humans with epilepsy and Parkinson's disease.

The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award

The Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, largely regarded as America’s top biomedical research prize, was recently awarded to three investigators for their pioneering work on optogenetics, including BRAIN MCWG member Karl Deisseroth. Building on the key discoveries of Deiter Oesterhelt and Peter Hegemen on light activated rhodopsin molecules, Dr. Deisseroth, the D.H. Chen Professor of Bioengineering and of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, has engineered these molecules to modulate the nervous system. Beginning with proof of concept in cultured neurons, Deisseroth has championed the development of the optogenetic toolkit for rapid, precise, and live modulation of neuronal circuits that are now being applied by research groups to study a variety of complex behaviors and psychiatric disorders.