by Buck Institute

Buck faculty Jennifer Garrison, PhD, receives prestigious $2.5 million award from NIH

Buck assistant professor Jennifer Garrison, PhD, wants to crack the “black box” of how neuropeptides function in the normal and aging brain, and a recent five-year grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences is just what she needs to do it. The $2.5 million grant – dubbed MIRA for “Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award” – will fund her lab, as opposed to most government grants which fund specific projects within a lab. MIRA investigators are not bound to specific research aims proposed in advance, allowing them the freedom to follow new directions as they arise.

MIRA grants enable scientists to take on ambitious and challenging scientific projects – studying how neuropeptides signal meets those criteria, to say the least. Compared to classical neurotransmitters, which signal at synapses between nerve cells, neuropeptides can signal between neurons over long distances and on longer time scales, controlling complex behaviors such as mating, sleep, and learning. This makes them hard to study. “There are huge gaps in our knowledge about the mechanisms of neuropeptide signaling in the brain,” said Dr. Garrison, who came to the Buck Institute in 2013. “And we know even less about how neuropeptides function in the aging brain.”

Dr. Garrison’s lab employs genetic tricks to unravel the mystery of neuropeptide signaling in the tiny nematode worm C. elegans, a transparent animal which has only 300 neurons and an already-completed “connectome” map of neural circuits. Even though the worm “connectome” was defined over 30 years ago, Dr. Garrison points out that this has not led to a predictive understanding of how the network functions. “Understanding the anatomy is essential, but we need to add to that map the activity of neuromodulators. Until we have the second piece of the puzzle we’re not going to understand how the brain works,” she said.

Dr. Garrison made her mark as a postdoctoral fellow at Rockefeller University when she showed that C. elegans produces a neuropeptide that is an evolutionary precursor of the mammalian peptide oxytocin, which is involved in reproduction, child rearing and social interactions. She mapped a neural circuit by which the precursor molecule, nematocin, modulates mating behavior in the worm. She recently discovered a link between nematocin and longevity and stress resistance – a revelation that she will further explore thanks to the MIRA grant.

“This recent grant award further validates the outstanding trajectory of Jennifer’s research,” said Brian Kennedy, PhD, Buck Institute President and CEO. “She is tackling one of the most essential and challenging aspects of neuroscience – the fact that she is bringing aging into the mix will be a huge plus for the field. I am proud to have her on our faculty.”

Dr. Garrison was named an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow and received a Glenn Foundation Award for Research in Biological Mechanisms of Aging in 2014, and became a member of the Next Generation Leaders Advisory Council at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in 2015. 

Science is showing that while chronological aging is inevitable, biological aging is malleable. There's a part of it that you can fight, and we are getting closer and closer to winning that fight.

Eric Verdin, MD, Buck Institute President and CEO

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