Prestigious NIH Grants Support Neuroscience Research by Susana Mingote and Orie Shafer

By Lida Tunesi

Graduate Center Professors Susana Mingote (Biology) and Orie Shafer (Biology), who are also members of the Neuroscience Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center (CUNY ASRC), received prestigious research grants from the National Institutes of Health. Shafer will study how different neurotransmitters released by the same neuron mediate different functions within our circadian clocks. Mingote will investigate neurons that release both dopamine and glutamate, and their relation to disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.

Mingote’s Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Award, totaling $431,750 over two years, will allow her to explore the details of dopamine reductions in abnormal cortical activity, and will help fund a doctoral student and a postdoctoral researcher to work on the project. Research has shown decreased levels of dopamine in the cortex in patients with schizophrenia, associated with deficits in decision-making, social behavior, and working memory. Decreased dopamine levels are also linked to ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease. Until now, most of these studies focused exclusively on dopamine, but Mingote’s lab recently discovered that neurons that co-release glutamate in addition to dopamine project into areas of the brain’s cortex. The new project will investigate how these dopamine-glutamate neurons control activity in cortical areas, and what happens when they stop releasing dopamine but keep releasing glutamate.

“Until now, we have been thinking that a reduction in dopamine release means that dopamine neurons are no longer doing their job,” Mingote said. “What we are proposing is that, since glutamate co-release prevails, these neurons are still controlling the activity of the cortical neurons, but in a different way.”

Understanding the effects of this neurotransmitter switch will hopefully help researchers elucidate the link between low dopamine levels and neuropsychiatric conditions.

With a Research Project Grant, Shafer and his team will research neurons involved in our circadian rhythms. The grant will support doctoral and postdoctoral researchers as well as collaborators from Barnard College and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Shafer plans to include undergraduate and high school students in the research too.

Circadian rhythms, also known as the body’s clock, regulate the timing of physiological processes, such as sleep cycles, appetite, and body temperature. Recent discoveries have shown that modern environments are disrupting these rhythms and contributing to health issues. Still, much about how our central clocks work remains unknown, in part because the neural networks are extremely complicated and the neurons involved release multiple neurochemical signals.

“The award will allow us to test a newly emerging model for how two neuropeptides released from the same neurons mediate different behavioral functions,” Shafer said. “It will also allow us to investigate how specific regions of clock-containing neurons mediate signals that link the circadian clock to daily environmental changes.”

Shafer expects that the research will both add to the understanding of circadian timekeeping and bring new information about peptide co-release to light.

Read more: Susana Mingote recently co-authored a review article on neurons that co-release glutamate in addition to dopamine, published in Frontiers in Neural Circuits in May 2021.

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