West Virginia University will help elevate neuroscience throughout the Mountain State by ramping up academic scientific research, making strategic faculty and staff hires, and adding state-of-the-art infrastructure to address the field’s most perplexing challenges.
The National Science Foundation-funded project will also benefit students by providing them with opportunities in neuroscience and data research and will contribute overall to the science education of K-12 schools in West Virginia.
Randy Nelson, chair and professor of the WVU Department of Neuroscience, part of the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, is leading the University’s efforts for the proposed West Virginia Network for Functional Neuroscience and Transcriptomics, a collaboration of neuroscientists and bioinformaticists working to position the state as an epicenter for neuroscience research. Joining Nelson on the project are WVU researchers Eric Horstick, of the Department of Biology; Aric Agmon, Morgan Bridi, Michelle Bridi, Martin Hruska, Charles Anderson, all of Neuroscience; and Michael Hu, of Microbiology, Immunology & Cell Biology.
The WV-NFNT will aim to expand and diversify the neuroscience and data science workforce in the state through implementing education and development activities for students, especially those who are rural, first-generation college students, and from other underrepresented groups.
“A significant portion of the research component of this project will be conducted by an undergraduate workforce,” Nelson said. “Immersive teaching of K-12 educators, formalized training and mentorship of undergraduates in both neuroscience and data science research, coupled with access to internships, will contribute to the goal of placing West Virginians in competitive post-graduate programs or employment in STEM industries. Broadening participation will be supported at the K-12 level through the equity focus of CodeWV and other programs such as summer brain and data sciences camps.”
CodeWV, housed at WVU, helps bring computer science to every K-12 student in West Virginia schools. WV-NFNT will partner with CodeWV to expand offerings by working with research faculty to identify the content and skills students need for data science and bioinformatics fields. The focus will be data literacy in early grades, and data science introduction in advanced courses.
Among the top research goals, according to Nelson, is studying synaptic and circuit plasticity, which involve changes in neurons and the connections between them as the result of developmental or environmental changes. This work will provide the foundational knowledge of how the brain typically develops and ages; thus, subsequent research could provide insights into brain function that is atypical, such as in autism, Alzheimer’s disease or schizophrenia.
The underlying flexibility in neuronal structure and function to cope with changing environments, broadly known as neuronal plasticity, is the basis for how organisms can adapt and survive when confronted by change, Nelson explained.
“Under different conditions, developmental stages, stimuli or environmental exposure, brain plasticity can be influenced,” he said. “Neural plasticity can be achieved through adding or removing nerve cells (neurons) or by remodeling existing neurons at different spatial, molecular or physiological scales.”
For example, connections between neurons might be strengthened during memory formation or neurons might be recruited or deleted from a circuit that helps process sounds.
“Despite the importance of plasticity, the mechanisms underlying how these changes are made in the brain remain unspecified.” Nelson said the grant will provide the tools and personnel to examine these changes at a microstructural and single-cell genetic level.
The project was awarded a highly competitive, five-year $20 million grant from the NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, which is facilitated by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s Division of Science, Technology & Research. WVU will receive $9.3 million as part of the project, which includes Marshall University, West Virginia State University, Shepherd University and WVHEPC heading up the initiative.
“WVU, in collaboration with its colleagues,” Nelson said, “will play a central role in developing and deploying new technologies such as stimulated emission depletion microscopy and single-cell or spatial transcriptomics — gene transcription — to understand the plasticity of synapses, glia, neurons and circuits in animal models.”
A new STED microscope will be placed in the Biology Department to examine ultrastructural changes in the brain. New equipment will also be obtained for conducting spatial transcriptomics analyses. Spatial transcriptomics is a relatively new molecular profiling method that allows neuroscientists to assess all the gene activity in a tissue sample and map where the activity is occurring. WVU also operates Imaging and Genomics Core facilities, which will expand under the initiative.
WV-NFNT hopes to capitalize from the strength of the WVU Center for Foundational Neuroscience Research and Education and the RNI. The WVU Neuroscience Department launched in 2018, and the neuroscience program, includes more than 100 undergraduate majors, 20-plus doctoral students and a new master’s program beginning later this year.
University leaders said they believe the project helps bolster the University’s standing as an R1 institution and strengthen its collaborative efforts, not just across campus but beyond.
“One of the most important ways we can change the trajectory of our state is to fund initiatives that educate our future workforce and provide hands-on training and research opportunities,” said Dr. Clay B. Marsh, WVU Health Sciences chancellor and executive dean. “The collaborative nature of this project not only raises the profile of WVU but also that of our partner institutions, and we are grateful to the National Science Foundation and the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission for recognizing the importance of education and scientific research in the field of neuroscience.”
“It’s great to see the continued growth in fundamental neuroscience at WVU,” said Sheena Murphy, associate vice president for research development at the WVU Research Office. “This is a cross-disciplinary effort engaging researchers from both Health Sciences and the Eberly College. It’s also exciting to see that there are so many assistant professors who are key to this collaboration.”
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WVU Research Communications
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