UCI researcher given NIH Director's New Innovator Award to study learning and memory

University of California, Irvine researcher Kevin Beier, PhD, assistant professor of physiology and biophysics in the School of Medicine, received a 2019 NIH Director's New Innovator Award to study learning and memory in an effort to discover new treatments for behavioral symptoms of chronic stress and depression. Beier will receive $1.5M in funding over five years

Beier's project, "Sculpting the Brain: High-Resolution Spatiotemporally-Controlled Modulation of Memories," examines neuronal plasticity, which underlies essentially all forms of behavioral learning and is critical to survival. Certain forms of plasticity contribute to adaptive behavior and are the drivers of pathophysiological states such as drug addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

About ten years ago, it was shown that injection of a certain peptide inhibitor (ZIP) into the brain could erase memories stored at that site by eliminating long-term potentiation of synaptic connections, but the research did not discover how it actually worked. A major hypothesis was that it inhibited a specific protein responsible for maintaining long-term memories. More recent research tested the hypothesis and found the protein had no impact on the ability of ZIP to destabilize neuronal plasticity that underlies long-term memories. This suggests ZIP works, but we don't yet know how. Gaining an understanding of how memories are formed, stabilized over long time periods from months to years, and destabilized has important implications for long-term memory and is at the core of our research."

Kevin Beier, PhD., researcher, University of California, Irvine

Beier aims to elucidate which synaptic proteins are affected by ZIP and then use this information to engineer a suite of molecular and viral reagents to specifically disrupt or stabilize memories in targeted cell types. The hope is that this approach will enable researchers to identify where the brain is modified by experience, and how these adaptations contribute to various behavioral disorders. Ultimately, these approaches may enable the selective modulation of the maladaptive plasticity that contributes to a variety of behavioral symptoms of chronic stress and depression.

"The molecular toolkit we are developing could substantially advance our understanding and control of learning and memory, which could have a major impact on the field of neuroscience," said Beier.

"Each year, I look forward to seeing the creative approaches these researchers take to solve tough problems in biomedical and behavioral research," said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD. "I am confident the 2019 cohort of awardees has the potential to advance our mission of enhancing health through their groundbreaking studies."

In addition to engineering a suite of molecular technologies for selective modulation of neuronal plasticity, Beier's lab will investigate how synaptic and circuit properties in the brain are modulated either by acute experiences or over time during aging.

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