Marshall University researcher awarded $399,600 NIH grant to study sex differences in brain development

W. Christopher Risher, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biomedical sciences at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, has been awarded a $399,600 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his research on the differences in brain development between males and females. This line of research is critical for the development of novel, targeted therapies for individuals with neuropsychiatric developmental disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia, that are known to present with significant sex differences, Risher said.

This three-year NIH Research Enhancement Award (R15), designed to support small-scale research projects that strengthen the research environment of the institution, will identify sex-dependent interactions between developing brain cells, including neurons and astrocytes, in order to determine how synaptic networks are formed in male and female brains.

The research seeks to uncover novel roles of sex and sex hormones in the fundamental process of brain development. Risher and his team will use whole brains as well as isolated neurons and astrocytes from mice and rats of both sexes to identify differences in how these cells form the connections that serve as the basis for the ability to learn, remember and perform simple and complex movements.

Our innovative approach will determine how sex differences affect interactions between neurons and astrocytes and ultimately explain how these changes result in differential rates of synapse formation, maturation and function between sexes. This work should provide key insights into critical developmental processes underlying neurological dysfunction and thus inform future strategies for the identification, prevention and treatment of neurodevelopmental disease."

W. Christopher Risher, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences, Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine

This R15 grant includes funding for several members of Risher's research group, which is primarily student led. School of Medicine faculty members Nalini Santanam, Ph.D., and Brandon Henderson, Ph.D., will serve as collaborators. The grant was issued by the National Institute of Mental Health, a division of the National Institutes of Health, under award number 1R15MH126345-01.

In 2020, Risher was selected for the Research Partner Program through the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation for his work on neonatal abstinence syndrome.

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