GW Researchers Seek to Understand Brain Abnormalities

Institute for Neuroscience faculty are uncovering the pathology of autism and schizophrenia.

December 14, 2014

By Lauren Ingeno

The human brain is a “monstrous, beautiful mess,” author William F. Allman wrote in 1989. More than two decades later, many mysteries of the body’s most complex organ—an intricate web of billions of nerve cells—remain unsolved.

But thanks to new technologies and collaborative science, neuroscientists are getting closer to answering fundamental questions about the brain’s functions—and its dysfunctions.

That is the aim of George Washington University’s Institute for Neuroscience, an interdisciplinary research base that brings together faculty from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), the School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) and colleagues from Children’s National Medical Center.

The institute, which launched in July 2010, “acts as a bridge” between CCAS and SMHS, said Director Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, a professor of pharmacology and physiology. And that’s important, Dr. LaMantia explained, because it creates more educational opportunities for students in both schools and also leads to new approaches to scientific problems.

“We’ve been able to define, in a much more coherent way, and synthesize the community of neuroscience researchers on campus,” Dr. LaMantia said. “The institute is making different researchers more aware of the many aspects of neuroscience, which is essential because it really is a discipline that is so broad.”

In the four years since its founding, the Institute for Neuroscience has seen tremendous growth, Dr. LaMantia said, with 40 affiliated faculty members from CCAS, SMHS and Children’s National Medical Center, bringing in millions of dollars in research funding. The university has hired four new faculty members directly to the institute and several others with neuroscience-related research.

“GW’s Institute for Neuroscience was the first multi-disciplinary initiative that was launched shortly after I joined GW in 2009,” said Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa. “Under Dr. LaMantia’s leadership, the institute has become a tremendous success, and I anticipate that we will continue to build upon this vital area of research in the coming years.”

Dr. LaMantia and the institute’s Guangying Wu, an assistant professor in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology, have received two prestigious awards in 2014 to analyze two puzzling brain disorders: autism and schizophrenia. Both are looking at the brains of transgenic mice—that carry foreign genes—to take a more detailed look at these abnormalities.

“We can use animals to answer questions in ways we could never do in humans,” Dr. LaMantia said. “With many of these disorders, you don’t know people have them until the process that disrupts brain function is already completed, so you really can’t look at how you get there. You can only look at the end point.”

Guangying Wu, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, a professor of pharmacology and physiology, have received two prestigious awards in 2014 to analyze two puzzling brain disorders: autism and schizophrenia.

Dr. LaMantia is exploring the link between autism and disrupted brain development with an award from the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), a leading funder of autism research in the United States.

There is a debate among scientists, according to Dr. LaMantia, about whether patients with autism have too few or too many connections between nerve cells in the cerebral cortex.

Dr. LaMantia and his research team, which includes interdisciplinary collaborators from GW and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, will use mouse models to investigate the connections between these nerve cells in order to determine the origins of autism development.

“You can look globally at the amount of activity going on in the brain of an autistic patient, but you don’t really know what that activity represents,” Dr. LaMantia said. “Is it because there is too much excited activity or too few inhibitors? Or is it that the wrong cells are excited at the wrong time? Each of those possibilities, if you were going to fix it, would require a very different approach.”

By understanding the pathology of autism, scientists may be able to target specific therapies for easing the effects of the disorder.

Dr. Wu, a young scientist who came to GW in 2012, received a prestigious NARSAD Young Investigator Grant from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation in November. With backing from this award, Dr. Wu will study acoustic communication in mice in order to better understand why humans with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations and disorganized speech.

As a psychology researcher, Dr. Wu said that his previous studies have focused only on the “very basic functions of the brain.” Dr. Wu is now moving his research into more directly clinically-relevant areas, and local resources at GW as well as external support help make that possible.

And the interdisciplinary nature of the Neuroscience Institute, has allowed him to take his research to the next level. Dr. Wu has a lab within SMHS, and Dr. LaMantia’s team of doctors provides Dr. Wu with transgenic mice for his study.

“GW is a very unique university in that way,” Dr. Wu said. “Because my primary appointment is in psychology, but my lab is in SMHS, this has allowed me to combine basic and clinical research, and that is really great. I am no longer restricted.”

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