ASRC Neuroscience Initiative Director Patrizia Casaccia Receives the Prestigious NINDS R35 Award from the National Institutes of Health

The highly competitive eight–year research grant will provide up to $9.17 million to fund innovative research on the molecular signals regulating glial cell function in the healthy brain

Headshot: Patrizia Casaccia
Patrizia Casaccia, founding director of the Neuroscience Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at The Graduate Center, CUNY

New York, May 1, 2019 – Patrizia Casaccia, founding director of the Neuroscience Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) at The Graduate Center, CUNY and co-director of the Inter-Institutional Center for Glial Biology, has been awarded a $9.17 million Research Program Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (a division of the National Institutes of Health). The award, known as the NINDS R35 grant, is the largest in the Graduate Center’s history. It will fund her lab’s work to investigate the mechanisms regulating the function of glial cells in healthy brains and how these cells’ dysfunction contributes to the development of neurological diseases and mental disorders. The eight-year research grant mechanism was created to allow outstanding investigators with a track record of consistent funding and productivity to stay focused on high-impact research and conduct ambitious, long-term projects that hold promise for society.

“I am extremely grateful to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for this R35 award,” Casaccia said. “The experiments set forth in this grant will push the boundaries of traditional science and develop new concepts inspired by the interdisciplinary science conducted at the ASRC. This grant will allow us to work with biophysicists, chemists, structural biologists, and physicists to explore novel approaches and strategies to promote and activate the regenerative properties of progenitor cells in the adult brain.”

This award is a significant achievement for both Dr. Casaccia and the ASRC,” said Graduate Center Dean for the Sciences Joshua Brumberg. “The support will allow her and other scientists at our institution to pursue the type of creative, long-term research that can answer big questions and point toward new solutions that improve life for millions. Dr. Casaccia’s approach to this project is precisely the kind of interdisciplinary research we envision facilitating at the ASRC.”

The NINDS R35 grant will fund the Casaccia lab’s work to elucidate the signals regulating the function of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells in healthy brains. Oligodendrocyte progenitor cells are the cells from which myelinating oligodendrocytes (a type of glial cell) derive. Oligodendrocytes were long considered a specialized cell of the central nervous system tasked with making myelin, a fatty substance that wraps the nerve fibers and allows for proper impulse transmission. Researchers previously believed that myelin damage occurred only in response to genetic alterations or immune attack, such as development of multiple sclerosis. Recent research, however, has shown that oligodendrocytes play a larger role in neurological function and disfunction.

Oligodendrocyte progenitor cells are present in high numbers during development, and they either turn into myelinating oligodendrocytes or retain stem-cell features in the adult brain, where they constitute 8-10% of the total number of cells. Oligodendrocyte progenitors have contact with blood vessels, which allows them to act as metabolism sensors. They also directly receive signals from neurons, which allows them to respond to neuronal activity and contribute to learning or social behavior. In unfortunate circumstances, these adult progenitor cells can transform into glioblastomas — one of the most aggressive and incurable adult brain tumors. Casaccia’s research addresses not only normal oligodendroglial progenitor cell function, but also their dysfunction in aging and neurodegeneration.

The NINDS R35 award will allow Casaccia’s team to build on the group’s previous discoveries about epigenetic regulation of oligodendrocyte progenitor-cell differentiation in the developing and adult brain. The team will also further explore the molecular mechanisms that regulate the behavior of these cells in response to changes in brain metabolism, neuronal activity, or local physical forces. By providing support for research and discovery of the molecular mechanisms regulating oligodendrocyte progenitor cells function, the NINDS-R35 award will support the ASRC Neuroscience Initiative’s work to fulfill The Graduate Center, CUNY’s mission to conduct science for public good.

Listen to Dr. Casaccia discuss her research on The Thought Project Podcast »


About the Advanced Science Research Center

The ASRC at The Graduate Center elevates scientific research and education at CUNY and beyond through initiatives in five distinctive, but increasingly interconnected disciplines: environmental sciences, nanoscience, neuroscience, photonics, and structural biology. The ASRC promotes a collaborative, interdisciplinary research culture with renowned researchers from each of the initiatives working side-by-side in the ASRC’s core facilities, sharing equipment that is among the most advanced available.

About The Graduate Center of The City University of New York

The Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY) is a leader in public graduate education devoted to enhancing the public good through pioneering research, serious learning, and reasoned debate. The Graduate Center offers ambitious students more than 40 doctoral and master’s programs of the highest caliber, taught by top faculty from throughout CUNY — the world’s largest public urban university. Through its nearly 40 centers, institutes, initiatives, and the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC), The Graduate Center influences public policy and discourse and shapes innovation. The Graduate Center’s extensive public programs make it a home for culture and conversation.