JHU neuroscience team earns NIH Conte Center award

The National Institute of Mental Health has again awarded a team of seven Johns Hopkins neuroscientists a $9.5 million grant over the next five years as a Silvio A. Conte Center for Neuroscience Research.

Conte centers, and the funding that comes with them, are named for the late Silvio A. Conte, a Massachusetts congressman and champion of the NIMH's Decade of the Brain program in the 1990s. Their purpose is to catalyze collaborative brain research that may lead to treatments for mental illnesses.

The last Conte award to the team, given five years ago, resulted in 22 joint research publications in prestigious journals, including Cell, Science, Nature, Neuron, Nature Neuroscience, and Journal of Neuroscience.

The new award will allow further research on the team's main focus, excitatory synapses in the brain.

Excitatory synapses are connections between nerve cells in the brain that allow one nerve cell to pass a chemical signal to the next, enhancing the signaling of the second nerve cell. The human brain contains about 100 billion nerve cells, each linked to others by up to 10,000 synapses.

In response to various signals, a synapse can be formed between two nerve cells for the first time, strengthened, weakened, or removed. Scientists believe that synapses' responsiveness to outside cues and the neural circuits that they form are at the heart of the brain's complex abilities. "For example, the current theory in the field is that a new neural circuit, formed by new synapses, must be made to create a new memory," says Richard Huganir, director of the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and of the Conte Center.

Synapses are also central to drug addiction, pain, cognition, emotion, and fear, and they are known to be defective in disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and autism, he adds.

At the molecular level, strengthening and weakening synapses involves the addition or subtraction, respectively, of signaling proteins that relay communications between neurons. One of the shared technologies that the Conte award will help fund is specialized microscopes that give the researchers the ability to peer deep inside the brains of living mice so that they can watch their signaling proteins respond to various stimuli—the learning of a new task, for example.

This and other technologies will also be applied to ongoing projects in the Conte Center.

In addition to Huganir, the team consists of Solomon Snyder, Paul Worley, David Ginty, Alex Kolodkin, Dwight Bergles, and David Linden, all professors of neuroscience. Their projects focus on different cell types, molecular signals, and signaling receptors that are involved in regulating synapses.