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Two years in, promise of new research fund pays off

Yasushi Nakagawa, M.D., Ph.D., is investigating what causes disturbances in the way parts of the brain interact and how those disruptions can lead to disease. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

When Brad Wallin helped to announce his family’s generous gift to create the Winston and Maxine Wallin Neuroscience Discovery Fund at the University of Minnesota in 2011, he said, “It will be exciting to see what unfolds.”

Two years later, we can see exactly what’s unfolded—and it is quite remarkable.

The Wallin Neuroscience Discovery Fund, made possible by an annually recurring gift of $500,000, was designed to spur pioneering brain research at the U. Winston (who died in 2010) and Maxine Wallin and their family hoped that the seed money they provided would help scientists gather the data they need to move their research to the next level, where they could obtain larger, longer-term grants.

Looking at two of the four projects funded in the first year, for example, shows just how successful that strategy was.

Understanding crucial brain interactions

Disturbances in the interactions between the thalamus and the cortex can result in serious disorders like schizophrenia and autism. But what causes those disturbances? With his Wallin award, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience Yasushi Nakagawa, M.D., Ph.D., produced results that led to an additional grant from the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, and a critical portion of his team’s findings were published in May in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Getting inside the mind

Understanding how the brain processes information—or fails to do so—can help scientists understand diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and depression. Using his Wallin grant, A. David Redish, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Neuroscience, developed a new nanowire technology that allowed his team to record from inside the brain of a laboratory rat. That work led to a new grant from the National Science Foundation that will help the team delve further into its investigation.

From talking to doing

In 2012, Institute for Translational Neuroscience director Harry Orr, Ph.D., was one of five scientists chosen to receive a Wallin grant for work he’s now doing with colleague Marc Jenkins, Ph.D., a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the Department of Microbiology. Their research looks at communication between the brain and the nervous system, exploring what role it plays in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“The Wallin Fund is so helpful to both junior investigators and more senior people who have many ideas for new research but not enough money to get them going,” says Orr. “Grants like these allow us to move from the talking phase to the doing phase, and that’s how important discoveries are made.”

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