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Brain Health Consortium expands transdisciplinary research with merger of research institutes at UTSA

Brain Health Consortium expands transdisciplinary research with merger of research institutes at UTSA

FEBRUARY 8, 2023 — The UTSA Brain Health Consortium (BHC) is expanding and strengthening its transdisciplinary research programs via a merger with the UTSA Neuroscience Institute and the university’s Bank of America Child and Adolescent Policy and Research Institute (BOA-CAPRI). The BHC now has representation from five affiliated academic colleges—Sciences (COS), Engineering and Integrated Design, Education and Human Development, Liberal and Fine Arts, and Health, Community and Policy (HCAP)—enabling the consortium to broaden its collaborative community of scientists applying their discoveries to prevent and treat neurological disorders, and seek new avenues for funding opportunities.

Jenny Hsieh, the Semmes Foundation Distinguished University Chair in Cell Biology, professor and chair of neuroscience, developmental and regenerative biology, will continue to lead the Consortium, which she founded. Leslie Neely, associate professor of educational psychology, will become the associate director and continue as director of BOA-CAPRI, which merges with the BHC. Charles Wilson, Ewing Halsell Distinguished Chair in Biology and professor of neuroscience, developmental and regenerative biology, formerly of the Neuroscience Institute, will become associate director overseeing programming and established initiatives within the neuroscience portfolio.

“We want to encourage further collaboration across all fields, to address complex brain health challenges with new methodologies and approaches from a multi-faceted transdisciplinary approach.”

With more than 48,000 square feet of dedicated lab and research space, the BHC has grown to encompass 68 faculty members, an increase in membership of 40%. BHC members specialize in stem cells/precision medicine, neuroscience, biomedical engineering, psychology and learning. The merger will add capabilities in the social determinants of brain health, community-based research, neurodevelopmental disorders, and mental and behavioral health.

“With our steady focus on science and engineering coupled with the strengthened community-based partnerships which BOA-CAPRI brings, we hope to create and broaden research projects with non-STEM disciplines. This includes advancing the understanding of social determinants of brain health such as health care equity and educational equity, development of interventions to advance brain health interventions for mental and behavioral health, interventions to increase brain health literacy in underserved populations, and research to increase inclusion of diverse populations in brain health research, especially from underrepresented communities. We want to encourage further collaboration across all fields, to address complex brain health challenges with new methodologies and approaches from a multi-faceted transdisciplinary approach,” Hsieh said.

The BHC received over $580,000 in research funding in FY22 from various agencies including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics (SAPPT), with research teams focused on various challenges such as traumatic brain injury, the effects of COVID-19 on the brain and genetic mutations that cause intellectual disability and epilepsy. To date, the consortium’s largest award is from the NIH for $12 million, given to Brian Hermann, an associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience, Developmental and Regenerative Biology; Hsieh; John McCarrey; Kleberg Distinguished University Chair in Cellular & Molecular Biology; and Christopher Navara, director of the UTSA Stem Cell Core and associate professor of research; to advance new methods for studying genetic brain disorders.

Recently, Neely led the signing of a memorandum of understanding between UTSA and The Multi-Assistance Center at Morgan’s WonderlandTM (The MAC) which aims to be a one-stop-shop that provides medical and non-medical services for individuals with special needs of all ages in the greater San Antonio area. Neely, along with Erica Sosa, associate dean for research and professor of public health, has already formed the Evaluation and Research Coordinating Center, which is focused on providing an external assessment function for the MAC Care Model by measuring outcomes and identifying research opportunities. The first success, a recent grant, secured by Hannah MacNaul, assistant professor of educational psychology, seeded a research project with CommuniCare at MAC, to test an outpatient treatment for severe problem behavior.

Within the neurosciences portfolio, the established annual symposium will continue in fall 2023 as will the annual public lecture series. The “Neuroscientists Talk Shop” podcast, begun in 2007, will also continue under Wilson’s guidance, and features the research of internationally renowned neuroscientists in a moderated panel with UTSA researchers.

This past year was a notable year for the BHC.

The BHC incubated the Oskar Fischer Prize, with prizes totaling $4 million courtesy of philanthropist James Truchard. Awards were given at the last Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas (TAMEST) conference in San Antonio, followed by a one-day scientific symposium to discuss the work of these award-winning global Alzheimer's researchers.

The BHC supported transdisciplinary research by funding two $15,000 seed grants to UTSA researchers. The consortium funded COS professor Nicole Wicha’s study, Effect of mild traumatic brain injury on predictive processing in language comprehension. The second award was for HCAP Professor Chantal Fahmy’s project, The long-term impact of traumatic brain injury on reentry after incarceration: A vulnerability assessment.

UTSA doctoral students Vanessa Cerda and Tara Flaugher earned prestigious and highly competitive fellowships to support their neuroscience research training at UTSA. Cerda received an award from the NIH, and Flaugher secured awards from the U.S. Department of Defense and the Pat Tillman Foundation. The students are among the first at UTSA to receive these esteemed awards. Both students are conducting research in Wicha’s Brain, Language, and Cognition Laboratory.

Hsieh served as an organizer and moderator at this year’s UT System Brain Research Summit, which highlighted the innovative brain health research taking place across the UT System, including at UTSA.

BHC members are have faculty appointments in the UTSA Department of Neuroscience, Developmental and Regenerative Biology, a new research-intensive department in the COS. The department recently launched a doctoral program in developmental and regenerative sciences to give graduates a competitive edge in the emerging regenerative medicine sector.

This focus on developmental and regenerative sciences has resulted in an upcoming joint BHC workshop with the UTSA Institute of Regenerative Medicine (IRM), featuring campus researchers highlighting their unique research approaches, resources and methodologies relevant to studies of regenerative medicine and brain health on February 3, 2023.

The Brian Health Consortium is one of 29 officially designated UTSA research centers & institutes, and reports through the Office of the Vice President for Research, Economic Development, and Knowledge Enterprise.

Sarah Hada

UTSA Today is produced by University Strategic Communications,
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of The University of Texas at San Antonio.

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